Manitoba creates action plan as post-pandemic mental health presents major issue

Mental Health, Wellness and Recovery Minister Audrey Gordon during a news conference at the NorWest Youth Hub Monday morning.

The Manitoba government is starting work to create a five-year action plan to ensure a strong system is in place for mental health and substance supports, an important step according to mental health experts that say need will be at an all-time high post-pandemic.

Announced in a news conference Monday morning, Mental Health, Wellness and Recovery Minister Audrey Gordon said the plan will build on themes identified in the VIRGO and other recent reports looking to improve Manitoba's mental health and addictions services.

"We are going to use the information and recommendations of these reports," said Gordon. "This action plan will inform priority areas and make it easier for Manitoba to find and access the right care at the right time and the right place."

The five-year plan will focus on five key areas identified from the reports:

  • evidence-based, quality, data-driven services;
  • service access and co-ordination;
  • substance use and recovery;
  • population health and wellness; and
  • service governance and accountability.

"The five-year action plan will help shape the strategic priorities of my department and set the direction for years to come," said Gordon.

"The government role will be to provide overall direction to improve access to and the co-ordination of the system, and support the work of the service delivery organizations and community-based agencies that provide direct patient care."

The province is looking to hire a consultant to lead consultation sessions with internal and external stakeholders, including service delivery organizations, community agencies and other departments. The minister said this will be done by the end of summer.

This fall, a public engagement campaign will also be held where Manitobans will get several opportunities to give their input.

The minister noted the completed five-year action plan will be released publicly before the end of the year.

THE PANDEMIC'S EFFECT ON MENTAL HEALTH

"During this time, I have never seen a time where mental health is more important than now," said Nancy Heinrichs, executive director for NorWest Coop Community Health, who spoke alongside the minister.

Heinrichs oversees a patient care centre and said she's seen a 500 per cent increase in mental health services amid the pandemic, and the need for such services will continue in the months ahead, even as restrictions are loosened.

"The change of going back into the public again," said Henrichs, "I think we're going to see for a long time to come a lot of anxiety and depression in our youth as well as older adults." 

Other mental health experts agree.

"Just connecting with people, being around people is quite a big shift," said Carla Cochrane, regional research coordinator with the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba.

"So that may take some time for people to get used to."

Cochrane said some First Nation communities without reliable internet connectivity were hit particularly hard when it comes to mental stressors amid the pandemic, as community members were unable to connect with loved ones online or offline.

"Just connecting with people being around people is quite a big shift, so that may take some time for people to get used to," said Cochrane.

Cochrane added that Indigenous representation will be an essential element as the province crafts its five-year plan.

High levels of anxiety and depression have seen a marked increase across the population of Manitoba since the start of the pandemic, recent polling from Mental Health Research shows.

Reportedly high levels of anxiety increased from 10 per cent before the pandemic to 26 per cent, with high levels of depression increasing from 9 per cent to 21 per cent, according to the data.

It's most acute among younger Manitobans aged 18-34, with roughly one-in-three respondents in that age group reporting high levels of anxiety and depression.

"That's right at the time when people are going to university, there are a lot of major life changes a lot of stressors in a normal time," said Dr. David Dozois, a board member with Mental Health Research Canada, "You add on top of that COVID-19 and there's a lot more concern in the mix."

For younger people, or anyone readjusting to everyday activities as restrictions are loosened, Dozoi says there is a path forward.

"By facing your fears bit by bit, your anxiety starts to go down and the same will be true of reopening," said Dozois.

"If bit by bit we face our fears, we'll start to get used to it."

Marion Cooper, CEO for the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, notes that some mental health issues related to the pandemic will have a lasting impact on some.

"This has been a kind of trauma for some people and that post-traumatic stress for some people has had a significant impact on their ability to function," said Cooper.

Cooper, however, is hopeful and says a mental health recovery plan will be crucial in the months ahead.

"There will need to be a focus on recovery not just in terms of opening up business," said Cooper, "But a recovery to our health and well being and the fabric of what supports our well being"