Government Shouldn’t Play Favourites with Mental Health Resources

Wellness Together is a short term mental health program fully funded by the federal government—but rarely promoted by the province. Why?

In March of 2021, I locked myself in my room and dialed 1-866-585-0445. I didn’t have high hopes. I’d used helplines before and come out worse on the other side, but I was desperate. I pressed dial and held my breath. 

Within moments someone answered and asked for my information. It wasn’t anonymous and they needed to set up a file. I rattled off my age, name, and diagnosis. When they asked why I had called—I paused. If I said the wrong thing, they would act as though I was in danger. Thankfully I navigated through registration and was connected shortly after with a counsellor. 

For the next 50 minutes, things started tumbling out. I was all over the place, but they did their best to make sense of it. My story is a long one, and sharing it can be traumatizing. There was no way to get into it all without more damage being caused. 

At the end of the session, they told me that I needed more help and asked if I wanted more sessions with someone. I reluctantly agreed and they promised to call me back with appointments. They did. Within 24 hours I was set up with an appointment just a week later.

That service was called Wellness Together. I’d been navigating the pandemic for just over a year when I heard about it for the very first time, even though it has been set up in April 2020. The more I thought about it, the angrier I was that it wasn’t being shared at the Covid briefings. It was free for the NL government. All they had to do was mention it at the briefings that people were still faithfully listening to.

I called Open Line, wrote a blog post, and wrote strongly worded letters to the Premier, CMOH, and  Dr. Haggie. It was mentioned at one press briefing shortly after that, and was left to fall into the abyss of Bridge the Gapp.

The thing about short term solutions is that people don’t know what to expect. They need to be promoted. It continues to floor me to this day that the NL Government hardly ever mentions one of the most accessible short term mental health programs out there.

Is it because of Doorways?

The government launched Doorways in February 2017 as a part of the implementations by Towards Recovery. It was heavily promoted. My own husband, struggling with then-undiagnosed mental health issues, went there for an in-person session and was grateful for the help he received.

Since then, they have made vast improvements. They have expanded the number of locations, launched in schools, and now people can be referred for further mental health services when they visit.

The most recent change is that there is now an option for a little more continuity of care.

Someone can go in, and if it’s determined to be needed, the counsellor can agree to see them for up to six appointments. (There are exceptions to this, but that is the goal.) The one barrier with this service is that it’s not set up for you. You have to call the day of and ask if an appointment is available. Although this is a barrier, I’m told it’s rare not to get the same day session.

But six sessions go by quickly. People might seem more together than they really are. In fact, when telling people about this program—I often beg them to advocate for what they need. The words of the Embracing Experiences put out by the CMHA-NL blazed into my mind:

“Some GP’s don’t take my mental health seriously because I’m very articulate about them and I seem like I have a really good grasp on my life and I am a high performing individual.” -Aster 

In fact, this sentiment was echoed by the youth who were asked about health concerns by the Health Accord.

“The young people were concerned that help is hard to get with long waiting lists. They also noted that too many times the need for mental health support is hard to prove. They said that stigma around mental health is still very prevalent in both school and home settings with too many young people labeled as simply lazy or troubled. Adults are still not talking about mental illness enough to normalize it.”

Because of these messages, and my own experience, I know how important advocating for yourself is– but the reality is that it’s the hardest to do when you’re struggling with a mental illness. We shouldn’t have to wait for a worst case scenario to qualify for intensive care programs.

Doorways has come a long way. But there is still the major barrier of hours. In St. John’s the latest you can register for an appointment is 6:00 PM. Often not a time available for those who work regular office hours. And outside the metro area, it’s even earlier– ranging between 3:00 PM and 4:30 PM. It’s also closed on weekends.

The upside is now with Covid restrictions easing, people can go in person. Some don’t do well with virtual therapy—the one big barrier that is there with Wellness Together. 

Doorways and Wellness Together offer vital services. They should be promoted at every turn. But the eerie silence about Wellness Together is unsettling. In a province that often cries out about lack of funds and mounting debt, it’s baffling that the government doesn’t point to one of its most accessible and free services.

Doorways is promoted often—to the point that those needing long-term services feel pressured into thinking they should be able to make do with just that. But what if it wasn’t a competition of which was the better service?

Doorways has a place.

Wellness Together has a place.

And if you were to dive into it, you would find that Hope for Wellness, Kids Help Phone, The Crisis Line, and LifeWise all have a place too.

But what none of them can replace is long-term mental healthcare that involves complex medication changes and regular long-term talk therapy. 

There is trauma in repeating your story over and over. There is trauma with the trial and error of medications. As good as it is to see short term services, we cannot forget what was reported by CBC about the mass exodus of psychologists. We cannot forget that as of 2019, 24 percent of psychiatrists are over 65 and 50 percent are over the age of 55, and NL isn’t talking about how they are going to attract new ones, let alone keep the ones we do have.

As grateful as I am that Doorways worked when my husband gave it a chance, and as grateful as I am that Wellness Together was there for me when I needed to talk and couldn’t afford a therapy session—it wasn’t enough.

So how do we move forward? How do we encourage people to use services like Doorways and Wellness Together, while validating their need for longer term continuity of care?

As Tanya Lentz so eloquently said on Twitter: “I really want us to start having honest conversations about how to improve the system. Patients are experts on what is not working and their needs. Clinicians know why they have left or want to leave. It is not a failure to say it is not meeting needs. It is a starting point.”

Doorways isn’t filling the 24/7 needs. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean it’s a failure. Wellness Together isn’t filling the long-term complex needs. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean it’s a failure.

What will be a failure is if we don’t acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of each program, and understand there needs to be a new starting point.

More than anyone, the acknowledgement should come from the leaders of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Follow Kristi on Twitter.

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