Mental health care providers ‘under water’ as demand remains high

WELLINGTON COUNTY – Local officials say demand for mental health supports, which increased significantly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, has not yet begun to level off. 

“Prior to the pandemic, we were extremely busy and couldn’t meet the needs and demands of our community. Now, we are deeply under water,” said Helen Fishburn, CEO of  the Canadian Mental Health Association of Waterloo Wellington (CMHA WW).

Fishburn noted that  throughout the pandemic there has been an “incredible increase in anxiety and stress due to fear and isolation.”

She said there has been a “massive spike” in need for treatment for eating disorders and psychosis presentation in young people.

Over the last three years, Fishburn explained, demand for services has corresponded to what’s happening with COVID. 

“When COVID and respiratory viruses in our community are high, the calls are high,” she said.

“There is a real association between people’s mental health and the presence of illness in our communities.”

Fishburn added CMHA officials, like those in other health care services, “have been overloaded in our systems so we haven’t been able to get to everyone.” 

Supporting your own mental wellness

Fishburn said now is a good time to talk about mental health, noting Bell Let’s Talk Day is on Jan. 25 and people may be dealing with  Christmas bills and “new year’s resolution time.”

She said CMHA uses these three talking points to “highlight awareness – first of all about yourself – your own mental wellness and how you feel about yourself and your supports.”

She encourages everyone to try something new to support their own mental wellness – “if you can, do something that makes you feel good every day.” 

Fishburn offers an array of things to try, including: 

  • exercise;
  • joining a CMHA webinar;
  • connecting with a friend;
  • finding a therapist;
  • going out for a walk;
  • reading a book;
  • drinking water; or
  • doing 15 minutes of mindfulness.

“Do something that keeps you talking, grounded, feeling mentally well – whatever that looks like for you,” she said. 

Fishburn recommends choosing simple things that can become healthy daily habits. Set a maintainable goal and “embed it as part of taking care of yourself and focusing on your own wellness.”

Local capacity

CMHA WW provides support to between 24,000 and 25,000 people in Wellington County, Guelph and Waterloo Region annually.

Here 24/7, a CMHA WW service that connects people with local mental health services, receives an average of between 6,500 and 7,000 calls every month. 

“Sadly,” Fishburn said, “there are waitlists” for many of the services offered by CMHA WW, just as there are waitlists for “all mental health providers across the region and across the province.” 

However, there are “no waitlists currently for child psychiatry because we just brought a new child psychiatrist into our program.” 

Waitlists at CHMA WW are “not first come first served,” Fishburn said – “all of our waitlists are based on risk. 

“The lower your risk, the longer you have to wait, and the higher your risk and the higher the acuity of your illness, the faster you will receive care,” Fishburn explained. “People who are in crisis receive immediate care – if you call today and are in crisis you will be seen … immediately.”

However, “once you pass through the crisis and are waiting for particular care, you have to wait longer” Fishburn said. 

“Some people have to wait months and months.”

There are currently 3,531 people waiting to receive mental health care in Wellington County, Guelph, and Waterloo Region. 

“Those are people that are no longer in crisis,” Fishburn said – “their crisis has been stabilized, but they are waiting for support somewhere.” 

Need for funding

In order to meet the high demand for mental health support, CMHA needs more funding. 

Fishburn meets with municipal and provincial elected officials, submits proposals, and organizes “a lot of aggressive fundraising” to attempt to bring in the money needed to meet demand.  


CMHA WW does “absolutely everything we can” to attempt to secure the funds necessary – “the problem is the whole healthcare system is saturated,” Fishburn said.

“Any funding that comes in tends to go to hospitals first, not mental health and addiction. We are always struggling to receive new funding and be prioritized by funding.”

Fishburn explained mental health services are important because “mental health is health.

“It is just as important as any kind of physical health condition, and is part of a person’s overall health and wellness.” She said “there is really good value in funding community-based providers like CMHA” because mental health care “keeps people out of hospital and keeps people from having to call 911.”

Accessing services

CMHA WW offers a wide array of services, including mental health education, intensive treatment services, and specialized programs like employment and housing services. It supports people with treatment for eating disorders and early psychosis, suicide prevention and post-vention, addiction, and more. 

Services include Here 24/7, mobile crisis services, and a police crisis program. 

“If you call 911 and you are in a mental health crisis, our team responds with police to the crisis,” Fishburn said. 

She said to access support people should call Here 24/7 at 1-844-HERE-247” (1-844-437-3247).   

“That is the gateway into all mental health and addiction services here locally,” she said, noting Here 24/7 can connect people with 10 different providers in the area. 

“We made it very easy to access care – we’re literally never closed – literally here 24/7.

“The service coordinators have an amazing ability to connect with people and then match them to the appropriate services that are available.”

A number of other services in Wellington County are also available to those in crisis.