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January 28, 2021

In an Ongoing Pandemic, Affordable Access to Technology is a Public Health Issue

This year’s Bell Let’s Talk comes almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic – a time in which Canadians have faced unprecedented isolation, stress, and uncertainty that has taken a clear toll on our mental health.

Through a series of surveys conducted over the course of the pandemic, CAMH has found that nearly a quarter of Canadians have experienced heightened feelings of anxiety and loneliness

 – with women, youth, adults with children, those with high-risk jobs and those who lost their employment at particular risk of worsened mental health.

Opioid-related deaths were also on the rise in 2020 – reaching a 38% increase in the first 15 weeks of the pandemic and now on track to set a record high in the province. 

And amidst a second lockdown in Ontario, things are getting worse. A recent survey from CMHA found that 40 per cent of Canadians say that their mental health has deteriorated over the pandemic with one in 10 reporting thoughts of suicide since the onset of a second wave. 

It’s clear the “echo pandemic” of mental health issues in Canada has already arrived. So, what now? 

Let’s talk about access. 

Over the course of the pandemic, the government has responded by making investments into virtual mental healthcare services for those facing social isolation, financial loss, grief, frontline burnout and more. 

But while these investments will surely benefit some, they aren’t enough to ensure our most vulnerable populations don’t get left behind: those who can’t get online. 

As the Executive Director of an organization dedicated to amplifying the efforts of peer support workers (mental health workers with lived experience of mental illness, addictions, and trauma), I’ve had a front-row seat to the difficulties facing those trying to serve our most vulnerable mental health populations. 

In Canada, anywhere between 150,000 and 300,000 people are unhoused– 45% of whom live with serious mental illness. These people – along with thousands of individuals with unstable housing conditions – are some of our peer support members’ most high-needs clients. Without stable internet connection or the tech to reach service providers many of them have simply fallen off the map. 

Drop-in services for homeless or precariously housed individuals are severely limited. Many people are avoiding shelters out of fear of exposure to COVID-19 (and fairly so – with reports of shelter outbreaks hitting the news cycle monthly). And libraries – a place where one could once access the internet and Wi-Fi for free  – have their doors closed for in-person business. This past year of coping with a global pandemic has revealed that the digital divide has a real cost: the health of those who can’t access or afford the tools to use it.

This doesn’t just impact people with unstable housing. Poor internet access or unaffordable internet is a nation-wide issue. According to OpenMedia – a Vancouver-based nonprofit calling for universal affordable internet access –1 in 10 Canadians don’t have internet at home. Others don’t have strong enough connectivity to access services like Zoom. Today, 16% of Canadians don’t have access to a broadband internet connection that meets federal government standards. In rural areas, that number rises to 64%. 

In 2020, the Ontario government announced funding of $315 million to expand broadband access for rural and Northern Communities. This is the kind of action we need to see more of.

But in the meantime, those cut off from mental health services – in-person groups and drop-ins – remain socially isolated in a time of high uncertainty and stress. 

Some of the organizations we work with have been lucky to receive donations of digital devices and even internet from their community. CHMA Peel and Dufferin has received some tablet donations; People Advocating for Change Through Empowerment (P.A.C.E)  in Thunder Bay received a grant for 50 cell phones with internet.  Yet despite determined efforts to provide those without technology with internet and devices, digital literacy still remains a big barrier to access. For our expanded digital mental health services to be effective in the future, we need to find ways to train and mentor those on the other side of the digital divide now. 

Peer support organizations are notoriously hands-on and are already finding creative ways to reach those who are feeling cut off. Our member organizations have created free phone lines for those without internet to participate in recovery groups (Zoom Healthcare phone lines charge long distance fees); they’ve offered digital mentoring sessions to those struggling with new apps over the phone and gathered technology loans for clients. Outside of the home, they’re on the ground providing care packages, delivering meals, and offering up recreational wellness tools like art supplies to those in seclusion. 

In a second shutdown with most drop-in programming closed, the need for wider digital access is clear. We need more funding for free, accessible technology to keep our most vulnerable and isolated citizens connected. We need safe ways to provide digital training to make sure people can use the tools we provide. And we need free, reliable internet coverage for Canadians nation-wide as soon as possible.

With more and more mental health services moving online, access to technology is a public health issue. Canada’s current mental health crisis will only get worse without tackling this digital divide.   

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