WELLINGTON COUNTY – Among the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are the effects on the mental health of the local population.
“The reality is that we are all being impacted by the events and everyone’s mental health is being affected in some way, shape or form,” said Cecilia Marie Roberts, suicide prevention project lead with the Canadian Mental Health Association of Waterloo-Wellington, during a June 25 update to Wellington County council on the Here4Hope strategy.
“It is important for us to take a moment and ask ourselves the question and be self-aware about this – ‘How is this impacting me?’ – and that we’re making sure we’re taking care of ourselves and that we’re reaching out and reaching in for people to have conversations about it.”
Roberts told council that research indicates in the early stages of “a large community tragic event,” like a pandemic, “we see a slowing in people coming forward with thoughts of suicide.”
While it’s not entirely clear why that happens, Roberts said available research indicates people focus on basic survival during such times and “folks will get swept up in that.
“As this pandemic continues and the economic and mental health impact of it, just the pressure and the stress of the unknown that is just constant, we really do expect a decrease in people’s mental health and likely an increase in suicide,” she stated.
Roberts says people need to “continue to be vigilant” and reach out to the people in their orbit and “don’t be afraid to ask a question about suicide.”
She noted that supportive organizations like Here 24/7 are literally open around the clock “and there’s always someone to help.”
Developed in partnership with the Wellington County OPP, the Here4Hope framework provides a community approach to prevention and awareness, including mental health training, support and resources for the OPP, Wellington County employees and the community.
Roberts told council the steering committee has been “working tirelessly” over last seven months to “really bring this initiative alive.”
A survey and extensive engagement with county staff have “really allowed us to focus our efforts in a way that is meaningful for everyone at the county,” she said.
“Our focus is mainly on increasing awareness and understanding of both mental health and suicide in an effort to reduce stigma and increase health seeking,” she added.
Once the pandemic arrived, “We had to switch gears a little bit on our mental health promotion activities,” Roberts explained.
One response was a “Let’s Take a Break” email series for county staff. Roberts said the series aims to provide messages and information and connections to supports “because we know that everyone is struggling right now, and everyone’s mental health has been impacted by this enormous event.”
Another element of the county program involves staff appreciation.
While noting, “clearly at the county we already have a robust staff appreciation program,” Roberts said the group is looking at how to enhance that and “leverage what is there to do even more.”
While diversity and inclusion were scheduled to be a focus in year two of the strategy, Roberts said that plan was advanced in response to current events.
“Clearly in light of today’s environment in which we are all living … we recognize that diversity and inclusion is something that we need to pull forward and address sooner rather than later.”
Through a partnership with the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, the steering committee is going to “be supported by that organization to find their focus going forward.”
The Here4Hope website is up and running and while it’s an avenue to find information and resources, Roberts said, “it’s also place to celebrate our successes.”
An annual Here4Hope community event, which has in the past brought in renowned speakers on mental health topics “will look a little different than the last two years where we’ve gathered people together,” Roberts explained.
“We have a list of 12 very interesting, innovative ways we think we can bring the community together and really engage them in the fall in our Here4Hope event, but in a bit of different way.”
Roberts said more information would be available on the event as plans develop.
A Support after Suicide team was put together in early 2020. The team includes a mental health clinician, a person with “lived experience” in suicide: and an OPP officer.
Roberts said the team has been “soft launched” and is providing services.
However, she noted, “We really are in the early stages of creating their resources, looking at their protocols and how they interact with other programs within the system.
“We expect to be doing a more public launch on World Suicide Prevention Day, which is September 10th,” she added.
Warden Kelly Linton thanked Roberts for the presentation.
“I really appreciate all the hard work that you and your team at CMHA have done, and really appreciate the partnership that you have with the county for our staff” and other organizations in the community, said Linton.
“During the COVID pandemic I think it’s even more important that this is a focus as we all deal with different things in our lives,” he added.