BOW VALLEY – How are you doing?
This is a question we are all being asked by friends and family these days. But while we usually answer with platitudes and "OK" or "good" – the reality is for many right now we are exhausted, anxious, fearful and stressed out.
The Canadian Mental Health Association's annual mental health week is May 4-10 and those in the valley that work in mental health services are encouraging everyone to take the time to connect with others and find out how they are really doing.
"Prior to the pandemic, people were dealing with – and people are always dealing with – some sort of mental health," said Mary Weighell, Right From the Start program manager.
"Because we are human beings, we all have mental health. There are ups and downs everyday for folks, but because of the pandemic the concern around mental health is more prevalent than ever. The message being that we really need people to focus on their whole wellbeing."
This year's mental health week theme is social connection. Connecting with others is an important part to mental health, but with social distancing restrictions in place and an infectious disease to worry about, it is a lot more difficult – but not impossible – to achieve.
Whether in person, with two-metres of distancing, over the phone, or on a Zoom chat – Canadians are encouraged to reach out to have real conversations about how we are all really doing this week.
Right From the Start is a mental health capacity building program funded through Alberta Health Services that works works in Canadian Rockies Public Schools throughout the valley.
"Right now, like the teachers, we have had to get creative around ways to offer universal programming around that," Weighell said. "And use different ways of connecting and interacting with students and families."
In April, the provincial government announced $53 million to improve access to mental health and addiction recovery services, supports and resources. That included funding for Primary Care Networks, online supports and existing helplines like the Kids Help Phone and Mental Health Helpline.
Bow Valley Addition and Mental Health has staff and resources available locally for those looking to access supports. Program facilitator Ella Schatzmann said for many in this public health crisis, their attention has been focused on meeting immediate needs.
"This is making it challenging for many people to prioritize attending to their mental health or their addiction concerns," Schatzmann said.
With people working from home, children out of school and many laid off from their jobs altogether, she said valley residents may not be aware of what is available. An online therapy platform has been available locally for several years already, and with COVID-19 restrictions in place, face-to-face services have been adapted and are now offered through Zoom. There is also the ability to speak with someone over the phone.
"The research shows when you have a therapist supporting you with online options, the outcomes can be just as successful as in-person therapy," Schatzmann said. "Not everyone is aware those services are still available."
Clinical supervisor Peter Bayliss said it is important to remember that the problems people were having before COVID-19 are still in play, whether that is difficulty in relationships, domestic violence, anxiety, depression, addiction or eating disorders.
"These types of challenges people had, they did not go away and all the more reason it is important now to ensure people are looking after themselves and attending to their needs and finding new routines," Bayliss said.
Coping mechanisms are critical to maintaining mental health and even more so during the current public health crisis like a healthy diet, regular exercise and social connection. Knowing the difference between healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms is also key.
With the current situation likely to continue indefinitely into the future, Bayliss said creating a routine based on healthy coping mechanisms will support mental health.
"As we can all appreciate now, this is not going to leave us easily or rapidly and we need to take action for our own well being in our own routines," he said.
Addiction and mental health manager Spencer Schneider said after this crisis is over, the over-riding theme may be how well we adapted.
"Are we adapting in healthy ways, or mal-adapting and overdoing it with Netflix and cheesecake," he said, noting many locals have embraced resiliency. "It is really encouraging to see people stepping up in the community and adapting to this change."
Schatzmann said that for anyone experiencing elevated stress, or concerned about their substance abuse, reaching out sooner rather than later can help alleviate the situation.
The Bow Valley has personalized addiction councillors available. As well, the counselling services offered through Bow Valley Addition and Mental Health are free to all Albertans – they just need to reach out and set up the first appointment, which usually takes a couple of weeks.
"If people need to be seen sooner, we will work with them on that and ensure they get the supports they need," Schatzmann said, adding urgent mental health supports are available in the valley.
Yvonne Law, with Banff's Community Helpers program, said residents of the Bow Valley can also help connect their loved ones to supports if they notice they are struggling. She said connecting with friends and family to see how they are right now is key.
"We are all unique individuals," Law said. "We are all going to react differently and our nervous systems will cope in different ways. We need to make sure we are looking out for those people who say they are "OK," but are really struggling."
The resources are also available for those looking for ways to support someone struggling with what is going on. There are also mobile apps and text services that will deliver messages of hope during this time available.
"The big message is that we can all take care of ourselves," Weighell said. "Self care is an important piece – if people are feeling isolated, lonely or disconnected – the big thing is to reach out and get some help and we do have lots of resources to do that."
Mental Health Supports
Mental Health Helpline – 1-877-303-2642
Addiction Helpline – 1-866-332-2322
The Kids Help Phone – text CONNECT to 686868
HealthLink – 811
Urgent mental health walk-in services are available at the Canmore General Hospital and Banff Mineral Springs Hospital seven days a week 2-9 p.m.
Bow Valley Addition and Mental Health 403-678-4696