Concerns raised as free, federal mental health program ends

A Vancouver-based frontline mental health worker is sounding the alarm as the federal government inches closer to ending a national program that’s likely saved lives.

Editor’s Note: This story contains references to suicide. If you or a loved one is at risk of self-harm, Canada’s suicide crisis helpline can be reached at 988, with the BC Crisis Centre at 1-800-784-2433. Translation services are available.

A Vancouver-based frontline mental health worker is sounding the alarm as the federal government inches closer to ending a national program that’s likely saved lives.

Wellness Together Canada was launched in April 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but as of April 3, 2024, it will cease to exist.

Health Canada tells CityNews in a statement, “Now that the emergency part of the global pandemic is over,” the program will end.

It points to previous investments made into healthcare and mental health supports and “bilateral agreements offering provincial and territorial health systems the flexibility to address their populations’ unique health and mental health needs,” as one way to fill the gap.

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Ashley Seatter, a crisis line call taker, works nights fielding calls and replying to messages from people who are reaching out because they urgently need help. She often patches people through to experts and counsellors at Wellness Together Canada, whom she explains, are able to help and then follow up with free counselling sessions.

Seatter understands the peak of the pandemic has passed but says the calls she and her colleagues are getting are becoming more frequent and more complicated.

“It’s people having anxiety attacks, having panic attacks, stuck in fight or flight and cannot get sleep. Some people haven’t slept for days,” she said. “Especially in the last year, year-and-a-half, in particular, I’ve noticed not only has the number of calls increased, but we know for certain that the length of the calls are longer.”

“There’s family trauma, there’s addiction, different coping mechanisms, there’s just so much happening. We’re having more difficult calls and I would say I hear more emotion, more concern in the calls that I’m having.”

She worries that with one less resource for people to get access to, it may send people to already cramped emergency rooms, or turn to self-harm and even suicide.

“I’m shocked and kind of panicked. I’m definitely concerned. I didn’t see this coming. People are really struggling right now, so for a program like this to suddenly go away is definitely disheartening because I know it helps so many people and I don’t know what things will look like in April once it’s ended.”

Seatter says some clients are waiting for a referral, including those who don’t have access to a family doctor. Last week, Doctors of BC confirmed to CityNews, that there are still more than 700,000 British Columbians without access to primary care.

“There are a lot of gaps in the system and this program was one thing that was a good little bit of glue filling in one of the gaps. It’s very, very helpful.”

Seatter says the program needs to be kept in place until a more fulsome solution is realized.

“I’m trying to advocate for the things I’m seeing because the concern is growing that things aren’t getting better four years after this program started, it’s actually worse.”

Health Canada says since the program began more than four million people have visited the website. “This represents an average of over 106,000 visitors to the site each month. The companion app, PocketWell, has been downloaded approximately 59,000 times.”

The federal government does have in place the 988: Suicide Crisis Helpline to provide urgent suicide prevention support. It’s a service that’s available 24/7 in both official languages.

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