Free UBC Okanagan mental health service to be expanded

Helpline expands to online

A free COVID-19 mental health service offered by UBC Okanagan will soon expand from a temporary telephone-based service into an online platform that continues to meet the needs of the community.

The psychological first aid program started up in early April as a collaboration between UBC Okanagan, the BC Psychological Association and the province. 

At first, the program was launched for front-line health care workers, and shortly afterwards opened up to any B.C. resident experiencing stress, anxiety or uncertainty related to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Residents were able to phone through for the service or fill out an online form, and one of 250 volunteer registered psychologists would contact them within 24 to 48 hours. 

UBC Okanagan professor of psychology and director of clinical services Lesley Lutes says she was concerned to find out over two-thirds of callers were classified as experiencing moderate levels of distress. 

“We’ve received calls ranging from general anxiety to acute homicide and domestic abuse issues, suicide risks and front-line workers who took the virus home to family members,” she says.

“What concerns me most is the high number of callers, mostly from the general population, in moderate distress. Without proper access to evidence-based resources, prevention and intervention services along with follow-up, these individuals may experience a further decline in their mental health.”

The telephone-based service was successful as a first step, but will cease operations on July 31, as residents struggling with their mental health during the pandemic are now in need of further support, says Lutes. 

With extra funding support, the new set up will include two online solutions - a virtual walk-in wellbeing clinic, and an email-assisted online therapy program. 

UBC Okanagan's walk-in wellbeing clinic provides patients with a 30-minute consultation via web or phone, conducted by a doctoral student in clinical psychology and supervised by a registered psychologist. 

The sessions are aimed at providing support and resources, says Lutes, and if necessary, referral for short-term psychological recovery sessions. 

The online therapy program, Kelty's Key, was created by Vancouver Coastal Health psychologists and is also run by graduate students and supervised by registered psychologists. 

It focuses on teaching patients new skills and effective coping strategies for dealing with the crisis, using the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy. 

“Virtual support creates instant equity, access and care - and creates a lifeline for those unable to afford psychological services," says Lutes. "At the same time, we are training the next generation of registered psychologists.

“The United Nations has warned that a mental health crisis is looming - and that’s completely understandable ... COVID-19 has cost us family members, livelihoods, social interactions and much more. If we truly want to rebound from these catastrophic losses - investing in mental health is how we get there.”

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