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Funding to expand virtual mental health services addressing needs for rural Albertans

The province has introduced a $6.75-million program to expand virtual opportunities for those in need of mental health support.

LAKELAND, Alta — Lakeland residents who have seen and experienced mental health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic are part of the focus of a new $6.75 million support program.

Alberta’s Associate Minister of Mental Health Mike Ellis announced the program — and its benefits to all rural Albertans — at a rural roundtable meeting last week with newsrooms from the Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association (AWNA). For residents in the Lakeland area, the new funding will mean access to services they likely couldn’t access previously. 

“I think it’s so important that people in rural Alberta are aware of the mental health support coverage that this is able to provide,” he said. “I wanted to have affordable, accessible mental health support for everybody in this province and I’m proud to say that we were able to deliver that.” 

The services will be provided by Counselling Alberta a new division of the Calgary Counselling Centre that will be overseeing the program. The Calgary-based organization has been operating for almost 60 years and provides affordable treatment for individuals and families alike who have various mental health counselling needs. The organization will serve as the first point of contact, referring to appropriate services and providing care. 

The expanded services have already served more than 60 individuals in rural communities since the program was launched on June 9, said Robbie Babins-Wagner, the chief executive officer at the Calgary Counselling Centre. 

Babins-Wagner, who has been overseeing counselling services for over 30 years said since March of 2020 - when the pandemic began - the need for mental health services at the Calgary Counselling Centre experienced a 20 per cent increase in calls from around the province. Considering the need, the new province-wide program will be able to help so many more, she added. 

“Since March of 2020, we’ve seen 28,000 individuals and we’ve provided over 103,000 counselling sessions,” mostly through virtual services primarily for Calgary clients, she said.“This is about 20 per cent more than we would normally do so when we were contacted by the department we were just thrilled to be able to respond and look to meet the need in some way” 

Virtual services 

Utilizing virtual methods to provide counselling services, which have become increasingly normal throughout the pandemic due to restrictions, it allows clients to be comfortable in their own homes while saving on travel-related costs. However, while many rural communities may have challenges accessing stable broadband services to attend, Counselling Alberta does provide phone call services and chat options, said Babins-Wagner. 

Ultimately, as the Calgary-based service works to build connections with rural counselling providers to enhance and also add in-person services, it will take time to build a solid network in rural areas, but the wheels are in motion.

“I think that’s important but if somebody wants the in-person services will have some of those available in select locations across the province. That’s being determined now,” she said. 

“That’s some of the work we’ve been charged to do over the next two years,” while also reaching out to mayors and reeves in northern municipalities to promote the program, said Babins-Wagner. 

Accessing support 

At the moment, there is no wait list for scheduled appointments, said Babins-Wagner. 

“Anybody calling before noon today will have been assigned to a councillor early in the afternoon. Anybody calling this afternoon will be assigned to a councillor tomorrow,” she says. Drop-in slots are available at 4 p.m. from Monday to Thursday. 

Whether clients are looking for short-term mental health services or long-term, the provincial service is very flexible, she explained.

“Most of our clients see us for six to seven sessions - some even less or some more. We really try and customize our service for every individual or family seeking our services.” 

Counselling Alberta is open Monday through Saturday during regular business hours and during evenings on Tuesday to Thursday. Supporting the wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and language needs, the sessions are offered in 17 languages with intake forms available in two dozen languages, said Babins-Wagner. Clients are able to call during business hours or register online 24-7.

“We want people to have comfort and ease in accessing services.” 

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Anyone in emergent need of mental health support is encouraged to call or text 211; the province's 24-7 hotline.