British Columbia’s minister in charge of mental health and addictions says while people of all walks of life are experiencing mental health issues during the pandemic, things are particularly dire on the opioid crisis front.
Judy Darcy, NDP MLA for New Westminster, spoke in a “digital town-hall meeting” on Monday sponsored by the Surrey Board of Trade.
“I don’t want to talk about there being silver linings in this pandemic, because it’s been a really tough experience for everybody,” she said. “But one of the good things that has come out of it is that people are talking about mental health a lot more than they were before.
“People are learning that it’s okay to say that ‘I’m not OK.’”
The opioid addiction crisis “has absolutely not” disappeared during the pandemic, she said, “and that has been incredibly challenging.”
Darcy said that “important progress” was being made in B.C. to address the opioid crisis, which claimed 981 lives last year compared to 1,453 in 2018.
“It was making a difference, but things have taken a turn for the worse. In the month of March we saw that – not in January and February – but it’s March when really we started being in the throes of the pandemic and I expect the numbers for April will also be up. We lost, these numbers remain to be confirmed, 113 people in the province in March. That is an increase of 60 per cent over the month before.”
Darcy noted there’s a shortage of drugs on the street and those that are available are more toxic than before.
“These are amateurs who are mixing these drugs, and they’re more dangerous. Plus, people are more reluctant to visit overdose prevention sites and safe consumption sites because of physical distancing.”
Generally speaking, Darcy noted, 50 per cent of Canadians are indicating their mental health has suffered because of the pandemic, “and about 16 per cent say they’re living with depression. We all thrive on social connections.”
For some, there’s the pain of not being able to hold the hand of a loved one who is in hospital, or is dying. On Monday, the Fraser Health Authority announced it is resuming elective surgeries that were postponed because of the pandemic, with surgical services expected to resume on May 19.
Still, Darcy reminds people anxious for a return to a semblance of former normality that “there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“We’re not talking about flicking a switch with this restart, we’re talking about turning the dial slowly because we have to make absolutely sure that we are doing everything we possibly can to keep people safe even as we re-open our economy,” Darcy said.
“If we re-open too quickly, if we let down our guard, we risk losing everything that we’re working for and certainly public health officials are very aware of the risk of a second wave, and if there is a second wave, which people believe that there will be, we want that to be as minimal as it possibly can be.”
But right now there’s help for people experiencing stress, anxiety, grief, loss, business closures and layoffs in the form of virtual mental health supports, and counselling.
“What’s really important is these services are accessible, they’re available to everybody, and they’re free,” Darcy said.
Check out gov.bc.ca/covid19, scroll down to mental health and you’ll see the programs there, including supports for children and families, for seniors, parents, victims of family or sexual violence, supports for health care workers, youth, students and educators, and supports for Indigenous people.
“It’s not one size fits all.”
Darcy also noted the British Columbia Psychological Association “stepped up really early, and they’ve had 200 psychologists say they were willing to offer their services for free.
“Psychologists’ services are often something people have to pay dearly for. So, they started out saying frontline health care workers, essential workers, but they’ve basically expanded it. If you are struggling with an issue related to COVID-19, they are available to give you support.”
Darcy said the government is also working to integrate more mental health programming into schools.
“Because we know we need to start with our kids, we need to start early, and so there are grants for school districts, and more of those all the time, grants for school districts, for them to integrate into curriculum.”
“We need to build it into everything that we do.”
Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, noted that one-third of Surrey’s population is under 19 years of age.
“I think the whole paradigm of conversation around mental health has shifted, for our youth, for our children, for adults,” Huberman said, “and it’s all about consistent communication and education.”