Virtual mental health service improves access to critical support

At the intersection of COVID-19 and the overdose crisis, the First Nation Health Authority finds new ways to offer substance use and psychiatric supports.

COVID-19 has people at home, with less frequent opportunities for connection. The isolation increases when it is compounded with the stigma of substance use or mental health issues.

“In many cases, underlying chronic, severe trauma is related to substance use and during these dual public health emergencies it becomes even more important to increase mental health and wellness supports for BC First Nations people,” explains Dr. Nel Wieman, First Nations Health Authority’s (FNHA) acting deputy chief medical officer.

In B.C., 261 people have died of COVID-19. As of Sept. 30, 2020, 1202 people have died from overdose in the province this year.

In response to this combined crisis, the FNHA accelerated their plans to launch a virtual substance use and psychiatry service.

“We accelerated the roll out of this service as the worsening of the overdose crisis during the pandemic and increased access to a safer supply highlighted the need for virtual care delivery,” explains FNHA.

FNHA virtual mental health
First Nations Illicit Drug Deaths Rise during COVID-19 Pandemic. Graphic:

Increased demand

Since the service launched in August, FNHA says it’s been in high demand.

“The only surprise was the high number of referrals, which shows how badly this service is needed,” FNHA shared in an email to IndigiNews. “The uptake was quite high, the programs have been very well received and utilization only continues to grow as we move forward.”

Indigenous people living in B.C., and their family members can be referred to this service, including those who do not have status. Patients connect with the team of psychiatrists and addictions specialists via zoom or phone and are ensured culturally safe encounters.

“The most apparent challenge was finding a way to make access to these much needed services as low-barrier as possible,” says FNHA. In seeking help for mental health or addictions issues, a significant barrier is stigma.

When people do seek treatment, in the traditional health care system waitlists to specialists can be long, and referrals are required by a primary care provider. It is possible to wait months, or even years for patients to have their first appointment with a specialist.

A significant change to the referral process, was to ensure people are able to access services readily from within their circle of care. Now referrals to the online service can be made by primary care providers as well as teachers, mental health clinicians, health directors, nurses, drug and alcohol counsellors.

They also grappled with technological barriers.

“Access to the internet and computers can present challenges,” says FNHA. “However the substance use pathway, much like doctor of the day, was set up to allow for the option of phone based appointments where technology exists.

Moving forward FNHA says they will continue to provide this online service in conjunction with their other programs.


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