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Advocacy groups denounce federal government shutdown of mental health website and app

Mental health and addiction experts are criticizing the federal government’s decision over the past four years to shut down an online service that allowed people to find free counseling and peer support.

Health Canada announced in February that it would stop funding the Wellness Together Canada website and PocketWell app on April 3.

Despite a public call from an alliance of 18 mental health and addiction organizations for the government to reconsider, the service ends at 11:59 p.m. EDT Wednesday.

“We know that tens and thousands, if not millions, of Canadians need mental health and addiction support. And it’s only gotten worse because of the pandemic,” said Sarah Kennell, national director of public policy for the Canadian Mental Health Association – which is one of the alliance’s members – in a interview.

Economic insecurity and anxiety over issues such as climate change are also drivers of mental distress and people need free access to help more than ever, Kennell said.

“Cost is one of the biggest barriers people cite when explaining why they can’t get the care they need,” she said.

Counseling, psychotherapy and addiction treatment are typically private, meaning people have to pay out of pocket or have private insurance, which often covers only a limited amount of care, she said.

“That’s where Wellness Together really filled the void.” It’s free. It’s available 24/7 to anyone in the country who is looking for help,” Kennell said.

Health Canada launched the program on April 15, 2020 in response to the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s mental health. The website and app connected people to peer supporters, social workers, psychologists and other professionals for virtual care, chat sessions and phone calls. It also provided information and resources on mental health and substance use.

Several mental health agencies, including Kids Help Phone, Homewood Health and Stepped Care Solutions, have been contracted by the government through Wellness Together Canada to provide this advice and support.

But now that the “emergency part” of the pandemic is over, it is time for this “extraordinary” measure to end and for the provinces and territories to take over, according to the office of Ya’ara Saks, Minister of Health mental health and mental health. dependencies, said Tuesday in an emailed statement.

“Provinces and territories are best positioned to meet the mental health and addiction needs of their communities by integrating these services throughout their health care system,” the release states, emphasizing that mental health is one of the “shared priorities” of recent bilateral agreements. financing agreements.

But there is “no evidence” that provinces and territories are taking steps to replace the free and accessible services provided by the program, said Anthony Esposti, CEO of CAPSA, an organization that fights disorder-related stigma related to substance use, provides peer support, and is another member of the alliance.

“Oftentimes, mental health and addiction funds (that) are transferred to the provinces are absorbed by the physical health system,” Esposti said.

CAPSA was able to increase its online group support sessions from two to 12 per week thanks to funding from Wellness Together Canada, he said.

“I’ve received many letters from people who use the service (saying) that, you know, the removal of this service is beyond unfortunate. It’s dangerous,” Esposti said.

Since February, when CAPSA learned that the Wellness Together program was ending, the organization has worked to find other sources of funding. Although they won’t be able to maintain 12 sessions per week, they will be able to manage seven, he said.

In addition to the financial component, Wellness Together Canada has provided a “one-stop shop” that people in need of mental health support can turn to, no matter where they live in Canada, Esposti said.

It’s “very valuable for people” in distress trying to navigate what is otherwise “a very confusing and fractured system,” he said.

More than four million people have used Wellness Together since its launch, according to information posted on the site.

Anyone who visits the Wellness Together Canada webpage after its closure “will find links to key mental health resources that have been accessed through the WTC portal, such as Kids Help Phone, which will continue to be available,” says the WTC press release. » declared the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions.

“Canadians will be able to access other key information on mental health resources, supports and services, including those available in their home province or territory, at www.canada.ca/mental-health,” says the press release.

But this site requires users to go through several steps in their search – an obstacle that Kennell considers unacceptable.

“Frankly, I think it’s shameful that we’re directing people to canada.ca/mentalhealth. I think it’s woefully insufficient,” she said.

“Telling them to go to a government website where they then have to dig down three or four levels to maybe find something that might be free, I think that’s just a demonstration that we’re not doing enough to meet the needs,” Kennell said. .

“We are really letting Canadians down. »

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call or text 988. Help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Kids Help Phone continues to provide free support and resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1-800-668-6868. Children and young people can text 686868 and adults can text 741741.

The Hope for Wellness helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for First Nations, Inuit and Métis people at 1-855-242-3310 or via online chat at Hopeforwellness.ca.

The Canadian Mental Health Association offers a free coaching program called BounceBack to help youth and adults aged 15 and older manage low mood, mild to moderate depression, anxiety, stress or worry . Visit cmha.ca/bounce-back/

Other places to get help are listed at www.canada.ca/mental-health.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2024.


The Canadian Press’s health coverage is supported by a partnership with the Canadian Medical Association. CP is solely responsible for this content.

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