Free online therapy program will be available to help Manitobans cope with pandemic-related anxiety

Though COVID-19 had infected more than 800,000 people worldwide and killed over 40,000 of them as of April 1, according to the World Health Organization, the virus itself isn’t the only threat to health posed by the ongoing pandemic.

Fear and anxiety sparked by the spread of the novel coronavirus, as well as social distancing measures intended to slow the virus’s spread, can also have a negative effect on people’s well-being.

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“A pandemic just incites anxiety and the fear of the unknown,” says Leslie Wulowka, the Northern Regional Health Authority (NRHA) regional director for addictions and mental health. “I think it’s just overall the sheer fact that it’s global. It’s extremely anxiety-provoking for Manitobans, especially Northern Manitobans.”

The provincial government has recognized the threat the pandemic itself and the precautions it is taking can pose to Manitobans’ mental health, announcing March 27 that it will be providing an online therapy tool to help the province’s residents cope with their feelings of fear, anxiety and stress.

“Most of us have never experienced anything like this,” said Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen at a press conference announcing the launch of the online therapy tool, which should be available to anyone 16 or older within a week or so. “There’s an impact for COVID-19 that we see. There is the impact of COVID-19 that we don’t see as well.”

The province will be offering access to Morneau Shepell’s pandemic-related anxiety AbilitiCBT program free of charge to Manitoba residents, at a cost of $4.5 million. 

The program addresses anxiety symptoms related to the uniquely challenging aspects of pandemics: uncertainty, social isolation, caring for family and community members, information overload and stress management, says a Morneau Shepell press release. It’s a self-directed cognitive beahvioural therapy (CBT) program guided by professional therapists.

"We know many Canadians are struggling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their mental health," said Morneau Shepell president of health and productivity solutions Nigel Branker in a press release. "With the requirements to self-isolate and practice social distancing, AbilitiCBT is a convenient, digital program that can be accessed  with any smartphone or tablet. It is a great way to support people while they remain at home. Our goal is to facilitate access and provide support to as many people as possible across the country."

Thompson-based mental health clinician Nuwan Fonseka, vice-president of the Canadian College of Professional Counsellors and Psychotherapists, said access to AbilitiCBT will be a benefit for many Manitobans.

“People really need this online program,” he said, noting that the Integrative Mindfulness Centre (https://www.integrative-mindfulness-inc.com/) that he founded has moved to providing all their services through virtual means in order to comply with social distancing recommendations and protect both its staff and their clients.

A type of talk therapy, CBT helps people become more aware of inaccurate or negative thinking to view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them more effectively,  says the Mayo Clinic website.

“CBT is a wonderful thing,” says Fonseka. “Anyone can try it at home. It helps people to pay attention to their thoughts and feelings in a particular way that is distracted by COVID-19. When people live with the fear of COVID-19 they’re losing their skill of living in the present moment. It’s very important to practise mindfulness. People need to start taking care of themselves right now.”

Fonseka also says developing a routine is a good way for people to cope with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disruptions pandemic precautions are causing to social relationships.

“The more we feel productive, fear and stress become more manageable,” he said.

The amount of information available about the coronavirus can be overwhelming for people, says Wulowka, noting that while staying informed and getting educated can help reduce anxiety, too much information can have the opposite effect.

“It’s really difficult not to be hyper-vigilant at this point,” she says. “Overexposing yourself to information is just going to heighten anxiety.”

To prevent that, she suggests people limit themselves to reading news and other information about the pandemic to just a couple times of the day, like once in the morning and again in the evening.

She also points out that modern communications technology can help people stay connected with each other even when they can’t be physically together, using the example of a group of friends she knows about who used to play cards together and continue to do so electronically.

“They’re actually having virtual gatherings,” Wulowka said. “They’re still playing cards but they’re doing it through Facetime.”

The Anxiety Disorders Association of Manitoba (ADAM) has established an anxiety support line for people dealing with the mental stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. People seeking support can call 204-925-0040 and leave their name, phone number or email address for an ADAM representative to get back to them. The messages will be checked regularly between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. Messages can also be left at the general office number 204-925-0600 or emailed to adam@adam.mb.ca. The support line is not for people experiencing crisis, who should call the Klinic crisis line at 1-888-322-3019, the Manitoba Suicide Prevention & Support Line at 1-877-435-7170, attend the nearest hospital emergency department or call 911 or their local emergency services line.

R.D. Parker Collegiate students requiring support with anxiety can call or email their school counsellors for help connecting with local supports. The counsellors are Krista Kristjanson (for students with last names beginning with A through C: 204-677-6231 or kkristjanson@mysterynet.mb.ca), Tracy Hanson (for those with last names beginning with letters D through K: 204-677-6233 or thanson@mysterynet.mb.ca), Courtney McKay (for last names beginnign with L through Q: 204-677-6230 or courtneymckay@mysterynet.mb.ca) and Treena Kuhl (for students with last names beginning with R through Z: 204-677-6232 or tkuhl@mysterynet.mb.ca).

NRHA community mental health can be reached via 204-677-5350. The Kids Help Phone number is 1-800-668-1472 and the mobile crisis line available from noon to midnight is 204-778-1472.

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