Mental Health and COVID-19: The Role of Social Service and Support Organizations and Technology

Written by Ray Sabharwal

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. Mental health is an important part of overall health and wellbeing and it affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices. It’s important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.

Mental illness and poor mental health are not the same things, although these terms are often used interchangeably. An individual can experience poor mental health and not be diagnosed with a mental illness, for example. Similarly, a person diagnosed with a mental illness can experience periods of physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

As per the CDC, individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions or substance use disorders may be particularly vulnerable in an emergency. Mental health conditions (such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia) affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood or behavior in a way that influences their ability to relate to others and function each day.

These conditions may be situational (short-term) or long-lasting (chronic). Individuals with any pre-existing mental health conditions should continue with their treatment and pay particular attention to any new or worsening symptoms. For any change in symptoms, they should contact their healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Mental Health and COVID-19

The Centre for Addiction & Mental Health (CAMH) has said that, even before the pandemic hit, many workers were already struggling with their mental health and at least 500,000 Canadians were missing work due to mental illness each week. COVID-19 and the resulting changes to employment and the workplace are likely to add to this burden.

woman speaking with someone on a computerWith the expected increase in instances of mental health issues during the ongoing pandemic, agencies who provide mental health care services will have to increase capacity and hours of operation, and roll out multiple delivery models.

According to a survey conducted by the World Health Organization between June and August 2020 among 130 countries, major disruptions to critical mental health services have occurred around the globe.

The survey evaluated how the provision of mental, neurological, and substance use services has changed due to COVID-19, the types of services that have been disrupted, and how countries are adapting to overcome these challenges. Many countries reported extensive disruption of a variety of critical mental health services. Some of the key findings of the survey were:

  • Over 60% reported disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable people, including children and adolescents (72%), older adults (70%), and women requiring antenatal or postnatal services (61%)
  • 67% saw disruptions to counseling and psychotherapy, 65% to critical harm reduction services, and 45% to maintenance treatment for opioid dependence
  • More than a third (35%) reported disruptions to emergency interventions, including those for people experiencing prolonged seizures, severe substance use withdrawal syndromes, and delirium, often a sign of a serious underlying medical condition
  • 30% reported disruptions to access for medications for mental, neurological, and substance use disorders
  • Around three-quarters reported at least partial disruptions to school and workplace mental health services (78% and 75% respectively)

The survey further reported that, while many countries (70%) have adopted telemedicine or teletherapy to overcome disruptions to in-person services, there are significant disparities in the uptake of these interventions. While more than 80% of high-income countries reported implementing telemedicine and teletherapy to bridge gaps in mental health, for example, fewer than 50% of low-income countries were able to do the same.

Technology and Innovation

To manage the impact of the pandemic on their organization, CAMH embraced remote service delivery and subsequently increased its tele-mental health visits by 750% between February and April 2020.

older woman speaking with counsellorOn a similar note, it was very encouraging to read this CBC report on how the Calgary Public Library and Wood’s Homes, a Calgary-based children’s mental health centre, collaborated to serve their community. The program allows library patrons to meet with a professional from Wood’s Homes for mental health or addiction support, or referral to other services, at no cost and without needing to book an appointment.

My recommendation for scenarios like the one described above is to capture client information at the location. This ensures information is captured accurately and helps maintain data privacy, but also means clients can be helped quickly if they require further referrals or appointments with other service providers.

The partnership between Wood’s Homes and the Calgary Public Library is a great example of social service and support organizations using innovation to serve their community. That said, in remote communities or where partners such as Calgary Public Library are unavailable, then telehealth or remote service delivery options should be given serious consideration.

Solutions and Options

Although enabling remote or virtual service delivery for their clients was likely already on the roadmap for many social service organizations, COVID-19 seems to have sped up its implementation around the world.

The transition to remote care service delivery can have significant change management ramifications, from enabling staff to be able to work from home and providing tools and technologies that allow them remote access to their cases, to the sudden redundancy of office space. As well, it’s important to note that there are substantial changes to how clients of these organizations receive and experience service during a remote scenario.

online meetingSome changes offer tangible benefits, such as savings in staff and client travel times or a reduction in office lease or maintenance costs, to intangible values such as efficiency in client management, reduced data entry errors, and so on.

At the heart of all of this is the question of what the long-term impact of this pandemic will be on social service and community support organizations. Will agencies and clients continue to embrace telehealth post-COVID, will organizations opt for a dual service model, or are there other alternatives?

When an agency is serving vulnerable sections of the community, such as survivors of abuse, crime, violence, or trauma, or those with a disability or experiencing mental illness, it can be expected that appointments will occasionally be missed for a variety of reasons related to their mental, physical, economic, or social condition. No-shows can affect agencies in a big way, as missed appointments translate into decreased productivity and can impact an agency’s already-limited funds.

Outcomes and Next Steps

One of the biggest challenges for social service and community support organizations right now is to explore all possible options to serve their communities, specifically those impacted by mental health challenges. This could mean partnering with local or state/province-wide public entities or private partners, such as the example of Wood’s Homes and the Calgary Public Library noted above, or adopting technology solutions that can help extend the reach of their programs.

Perhaps the best recommendation for affected agencies is to engage subject matter experts in each of the respective categories and evaluate the options. Then, choose the one that suits the agency’s mandate and roll out a pilot just like the Wood’s Homes example above.

As a provider of client management software for social services, Athena doesn’t claim to employ mental health experts but we certainly have technology specialists who have collaborated and guided many community support agencies in diversifying and optimizing their services. If your agency is looking for opportunities to expand your reach or increase the number of people you can serve during the pandemic and beyond, please feel free to contact one of our experts to schedule a complimentary assessment.

Additional Resources

The wonderful people at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and others have put together some resources and suggestions to help support mental health during the pandemic, which we’re happy to share here. Some of these resources are:

Self-Care and more

Workplace Mental Health

Caring for Others

Some other recommended sources of information:

In Canada:

In the US:

Around the world:

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