Advocacy groups decry federal government’s shutdown of mental health website, app

Mental health and addictions experts are slamming the federal government’s decision to shut down an online service that offered help with finding free counselling and peer support over the last four years.

Health Canada announced in February that it would stop funding the Wellness Together Canada website and PocketWell app on April 3.

Despite a public plea from an alliance of 18 mental health and addictions organizations for the government to reconsider, the service ends at 11:59 p.m. EDT Wednesday.

“We know that tens and thousands, if not millions, of Canadians are in need of mental health and substance use health support. And that has only worsened as a result of the pandemic,” said Sarah Kennell, national director of public policy for the Canadian Mental Health Association, which is one of the alliance members.

Economic insecurity and anxiety about issues like climate change are also driving mental distress and people need free access to help more than ever, Kennell said.

“Cost is one of the primary barriers that (people) cite when explaining why they can’t get the care that they need,” she said.

Counselling, psychotherapy and addictions treatment are usually private, meaning that people must pay out of pocket for them or have private insurance, which often covers only a limited amount of care, she said.

“That’s where Wellness Together really filled the gap. It’s free. It’s available 24/7 to anyone in the country who’s looking for help,” Kennell said.

Program launched early in COVID-19 pandemic

Health Canada launched the program on April 15, 2020 in response to the toll the COVID-19 pandemic was taking on people’s mental health. The website and app connected people to peer support workers, social workers, psychologists and other professionals for virtual care, chat sessions and phone calls. It also provided information and resources about mental health and substance use.

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Several mental health agencies, including Kids Help Phone, Homewood Health and Stepped Care Solutions, were contracted by the government through Wellness Together Canada to provide that counselling and support.

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But now that the “emergency part” of the pandemic is over, it’s time for that “extraordinary” measure to come to an end and for the provinces and territories to take over, the office of Ya’ara Saks, minister of mental health and addictions, said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.

“Provinces and territories are best placed to support the mental health and substance use needs of their communities by integrating these services into their whole system of care,” the statement said, noting that mental health is one of the “shared priorities” in recent bilateral funding agreements.

But there’s been “no evidence” that the provinces and territories are taking action to replace the free and accessible services the program provided, said Anthony Esposti, CEO of CAPSA, an organization that addresses stigma around substance use disorders, provides peer support and is another member of the alliance.

“Oftentimes the mental health and substance use health dollars (that) get transferred to the provinces get absorbed into the physical health system,” Esposti said.

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CAPSA was able to increase its online group support sessions from two to 12 a week through Wellness Together Canada funding, he said.

“I’ve received numerous letters from people who use the service (saying) that, you know, taking this away is more than unfortunate. It’s dangerous,” Esposti said.

Replacement ‘woefully inadequate’

Since February, when CAPSA learned the Wellness Together program was ending, the organization has been scrambling to find other funding sources. Although they won’t be able to keep 12 sessions a week going, they will be able to manage seven, he said.

In addition to the funding component, Wellness Together Canada provided a “one-stop shop” to which people needing mental health support could turn no matter where in Canada they live, Esposti said.

That’s “very valuable for people” in distress trying to navigate what is otherwise “a very confusing and fractured system,” he said.

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More than four million people have used Wellness Together since it launched, according to information posted on the site.

Anyone who visits the Wellness Together Canada web page after it has shut down “will find links to key mental health resources that had been accessed via the WTC portal, such as Kids Help Phone, which will continue to be available,” the statement from the mental health and addictions minister said.

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“Canadians will be able to access other key information on mental health resources, supports and services, including those available in their home province or territory, at www.canada.ca/mental-health,” the statement said.

But that site requires users to go through multiple steps in their search — a barrier Kennell said is unacceptable.

“I think, frankly, it’s shameful that we would direct people to canada.ca/mental health. I think that’s woefully inadequate,” she said.

“Telling them to go to a government website where they then have to dig down three or four layers to maybe find something that might be free, I think is just a demonstration that we’re not doing enough to meet the need. We’re really failing Canadians.”

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call or text 988. Help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Kids Help Phone continues to provide free support and resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Phone 1-800-668-6868. Children and youth can text 686868 and adults can text 741741.

The Hope for Wellness Help Line is available for First Nations, Inuit and Metis people 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-855-242-3310 or online chat at hopeforwellness.ca

The Canadian Mental Health Association offers a free coaching program called BounceBack to help youth and adults 15 years of age and older manage low mood, mild to moderate depression, anxiety, stress or worry. Visit cmha.ca/bounce-back/

More places to get help are listed at www.canada.ca/mental-health

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