Increased access to mental health supports for Indigenous communities announced by province

Karly Blats, April 15, 2020

Premier John Horgan announced new mental health supports to help British Columbians to deal with the social isolation requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Province of B.C. photo)

Victoria, BC — 

The Province of British Columbia has announced $5 million to expand existing mental health programs and services, launch new supports for British Columbians amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A press release from Premier John Horgan’s office states the enhanced virtual services are aimed to help British Columbians with mental health needs arising from the pandemic.

The funding will also increase access for Indigenous communities and those living in rural and remote parts of the province. It will provide more options for people living with mental health challenges who are currently unable to access in-person supports.

New and expanding services include expanding access to no-and-low-cost community counselling programs. There’s an emphasis on this being provided virtually, increasing access to online peer support and system navigation. Virtual supports have been set up for youth aged 12 to 24 by making Foundry services available around the province through voice, video and chat and providing more online tools and resources to help people assess and manage their own mental health.

“I am glad that the BC government is recognizing the need to help with mental health programs and launch new services for use during this very unusual time in our lives. Five million (dollars) is a start but if staying at home lasts longer, they will need to invest more money into these new programs,” said Judith Sayers, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president. “One of those services is virtual mental health services where you can access a counsellor online. Everyone today is doing their counselling online and this makes the service a little easier to find. It of course won't be as good as having a counsellor you see regularly, but if you need to talk to someone here is the opportunity.”

The province states that the emphasis on virtual support and care will be offered in multiple languages, as well as connect people living in rural and remote communities and Indigenous peoples throughout the province. The province said it will continue to collaborate with Indigenous partners to ensure these services are culturally safe and responsive to the needs of Indigenous peoples in rural and urban areas.

Sayers said when a professional is working with an Indigenous person there has to be an environment that is spiritually, socially and emotionally safe, as well as physically safe.

“There can be no denial of their identity, of who they are and what they need,” Sayers said.

As self-isolating is being urged by health professionals, some First Nation people are being challenged to live in stark contrast to what they’re used to.

“A lot of (First Nations) communities are remote and semi-remote. Your world is in visiting family and friends and going to public meetings about the community. Now we are asking them to be even more remote by staying in their home and keeping physical distance away from each other,” Sayers said. “This is a whole change of life. There have been several funerals over this isolation period, not COVID-19 related, and having been told to stay away from a funeral, where you can get some closure on losing a loved one, is an immense challenge.”

Sayers added attending funerals and supporting family and friends in their homes is medicine for the family and not being able to do that takes a great toll on people.

“We show our respect by going to funerals and supporting the family,” she said.

Sayers said it’s very hard on families to put plans on hold indefinitely for things like ceremonies, memorials and community meetings that concern the business of First Nations.

“This is very hard on families who have been practicing songs and dances and exercising protocols on how to invite people,” she said. “The uncertainty of when you can schedule your event is the worst of all. The not knowing wears on people.”

Keeping children and youth occupied and happy is another challenge.

It can be stressful on parents trying to make their children understand why they can't go visit their friends or grandparents and why it could be them that could bring sickness into other homes, explained Sayers.  

“Supporting parents getting through this is important and counselling can help,” she said. “Also, trying to find ways to continue their children's education. Some schools are doing lessons and tutoring over the internet. If you have no computers or internet in your house, your children can't keep up to date on their lessons. There is stress and worry about this.”

First Nations people are resilient, Sayers said, and she’s observed they are doing what they can to get through the pandemic, like set times to pray, or drum and sing together from separate porches.

“They are sharing songs and dances on Facebook so others can feel uplifted and empowered and enjoy our culture. They are communicating through social media with one another as long as they have access to the internet or using the phone,” Sayers said. “[Members] are becoming stronger and more united as they work towards one cause—that is to remain healthy and not lose anyone to this deadly virus.”

Communities are also revising their emergency plans, which Sayers said has helped ease the fears of community members.

“We are doing what we can, and the B.C. government has to do what they can to support us as well,” she said. “As we see more needs, we will work with B.C. and the First Nations Health Authority to find mental health supports. This is our first pandemic and we need to learn as we go along and respond quickly to provide the supports our members need.”

To help combat mental health issues during this time of self-isolating and social distancing, the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) suggests daily exercising and stretching. The FNHA says getting or staying motivated to be active, whether on the land or at home, is important for your mood, health, energy and even your sleep. Regular activity can improve your mood, keep you relaxed, lower your anxiety and enhance overall feelings of wellbeing.

To find tips and resources on exercising and staying healthy visit fnha.ca.