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B.C. ramps up mental health support for front-line health care workers, families

VICTORIA — Two hundred psychologists in British Columbia are volunteering to provide free virtual counselling to front-line health workers as part of the province's efforts to ramp up mental health services for anyone who needs them.

VICTORIA — Two hundred psychologists in British Columbia are volunteering to provide free virtual counselling to front-line health workers as part of the province's efforts to ramp up mental health services for anyone who needs them.

Premier John Horgan joined Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy on Thursday to announce virtual supports that he said are necessary for people struggling during the pandemic.

"We need to hang together, we need to recognize that although we may feel stress, that we may feel bouts of depression at the challenges that we face as individuals, as a family and as a community, together we can get through this," Horgan said.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry acknowledged the stressful circumstances the province is facing but said residents efforts to practise physical distancing and self-isolation are producing positive results.

"The story is told in what we're seeing in terms of the numbers of cases, the numbers of people in hospital," she said at a news conference Thursday. "It tells me that people are doing what we've asked them to do."

Henry reported two COVID-19 deaths, bringing B.C.'s death toll to 50.

She said B.C. has 34 new cases of COVID-19 and a total of 1,370 cases. There are 132 people in hospital and 68 are being treated for the virus in intensive care. Henry said 858 people have recovered.

The mental health and addictions minister said people experiencing anxiety, loneliness and the financial stress of losing a job, caring for children out of school or fearing illness need to reach out for help while living with precautionary measures that have limited contact with others during COVID-19.

"While we know that these physical distancing measures are temporary and are in everyone's interests it's important to recognize the immediate and long-term impacts on people's mental health and well-being," Darcy said.

The government's mental health supports come as B.C. officially imposed strict work conditions at long-term care facilities to protect elderly residents and workers.

Care workers in B.C. are no longer working at more than one long-term care facility during the pandemic, Henry said.

"As of today, it's official we have been using orders under both the Public Health Act that I've given, and under the Emergency Programs Act, to implement a process to make it possible for care workers, health-care workers of all kinds to work at a single site only," she said.

She said B.C. now has 20 long-term care facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks after one home was declared free of the virus. 

Health Minister Adrian Dix said 30 of the 50 COVID-19 deaths were residents at long-term care facilities.

He said the government estimates the single-site care worker policy will cost about $10 million a month. 

Members of the public can also get help through the B.C. government's BounceBack program, an online skills-building service for people with mild to moderate anxiety or depression. It's one of several new and bolstered government initiatives to help during the pandemic, Darcy said.

"Now, very importantly, anyone can access BounceBack without a referral from a doctor. This is huge and this will help so many people in our province," she Darcy.

She said the B.C. Psychological Association began offering free services to health care workers several days ago.

"We know what kind of stress front-line health care workers are under — the fear of the disease itself, the stress of caring for patients, what this means for their mental health, what it means for their families, the isolation they experience," she said in an interview.

Virtual resources from a mobile response team for people working on the front lines of the overdose crisis have also been ramped up, Darcy said, adding the focus will be on paramedics and those in small community agencies where people lack access to extended benefits or counselling.

"These are for the front-line workers dealing with stress and trauma," she said of those who in the past would often have received debriefings, support and counselling.

In May, a virtual peer-support service will be provided for workers in long-term care homes and those who provide home support, Darcy said. Work is also underway with the Canadian Mental Health Association and unions for peers to learn "psychological first aid," she said.

Finance Minister Carole James said on Thursday that 132,000 jobs were lost in the province in March due to COVID-19, pushing the unemployment rate over seven per cent.

She said she expects the numbers for April to be even worse.

— By Camille Bains in Vancouver and Dirk Meissner in Victoria.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 9, 2020

The Canadian Press