By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News
Alberta’s Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Mike Ellis, said in a recent meeting with rural media, “I think it is important that people in rural Alberta are aware of this mental health support coverage.”
Ellis expressed he, “did not want the (news of this initiative) to get lost,” as political, social, and financial ramifications of an uncertain two years continue to impact the mental health of many Albertans.
On June 9, the province announced a $6.75 million investment over two years to the Calgary Counselling Centre and their Counselling Alberta division to expand affordable counselling services across the province and provide better access to these resources to rural Albertans through telehealth and virtual care models.
A vision for a more egalitarian approach to mental health care intends that “nobody is turned away. There are no wait times regardless of your socioeconomic status. If you are somebody that’s going though something,” there are options. The cost of services is determined on a sliding scale depending on a client’s income, and very low-income Albertans will have the entire cost of the services subsidized.
CEO of the Calgary Counselling Centre, Dr. Robbie Babins-Wagner, said she believes, “this is a super important initiative with COVID-19 at the centre because when the pandemic started in March 2020, we started receiving calls from people across the problems saying, ‘Can you see us?’ and our answer is always yes,” she explained.
“To date, (the Calgary Counselling Centre) has seen, since mid-March of 2020, 28,000 individuals, and we provided over 103,000 council sessions. So, it’s been pretty busy. This is about 20 per cent more than we would normally do.”
Babins-Wagner added if a call is received before noon, a client will be assigned a counsellor that afternoon. She added, “we also have two spots every single day at four o’clock,” for people in need of immediate care.”
“We know the space well enough to know that if somebody is really in distress and they’re not ready to tell you that and you say, ‘sorry, the wait is two weeks, or six weeks or 12 weeks, it’s highly unlikely that they’re going to reach out for services again.”
Babins-Wagner said that since the program was announced in June, there have been 60 people who have called for resources and are currently connected with a counsellor outside of the Calgary zone.
Sunny South News asked what considerations are being made for Albertans needing access to mental health care in rural communities, which currently do not have accessibly-priced or adequate digital infrastructure. Although there are ongoing initiatives across the country to improve digital infrastructure, digital literacy remains a consideration when looking toward virtual health care models.
“Since the pandemic began, we’ve been providing service by telephone. We work with a lot of seniors. In fact, we’ve seen our, at least in Calgary area, we’ve seen the proportion of seniors grow by about 20 to 30 per cent.” Babins-Wagner acknowledged not every client is comfortable or able to access support virtually, but that there are chat and phone options available as well.
Associate Minister Ellis, did not comment on the issue of digital infrastructure and how it correlates to access.
In terms of growing this program in Northern Alberta communities, Babins-Wagner said, “That’s some of the work that we’ve been charged to do over the next two years and we’re actually working with. I’ve reached out to the mayor or leave in every community in Alberta and I’m hoping to talk to everybody by some time early fall (…) We have a communications team that’s going to be part of this project and they will be working specifically to reach out in ways that your community small communities, rural communities, and northern communities need.”
“We want to make sure that folks in northern, southern, and central (zones) know there are mental health supports available,” said Ellis.
People seeking mental health resources are encouraged to visit counsellingalberta.ca or call 2-1-1 to help get connected to mental health resources and services offered in the province.