n January 25, the Ontario government announced that it was investing $4.75 million to expand a virtual “walk-in” mental health counselling program.
The “One Stop Talk” project, explained the release, is aimed to make it “easier and more convenient” for children, youth, and families in Ontario to access mental health help throughout the province.
If all goes according to plan, children and youth get to speak with a clinician by phone, text, or video without an appointment, and access help “no matter where they live,” given that they have access to a phone or computer and internet connection.
Sylvia Jones, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health, said this offers modern and convenient options for youth “to connect to help in ways that they’re used to communicating.”
There are two problems with this model.
First, virtual care is proven to be just as effective in treating symptoms of anxiety and depression as it is in person, as long as it offers recurring sessions and perpetual support, which the new program does not. The Ontario government opts for convenience: a streamlined approach to help victims of trauma, with just one appointment, at a distance.
Second, virtual mental health care is not friendly to marginalized groups, including families whose children and youth face lack of housing, are unable to access private phones and computers, have poor digital literacy, and can’t keep up with costly internet and technology bills. Their living situations may prevent them from benefiting from these much-needed mental health initiatives.
Poverty and mental illness go hand in hand. Canadians who live in the lowest income group are 3 to 4 times more likely to report poor to fair mental health. At least 12 percent of Ontarians do not have access to a reliable internet connection at home and implementing proposed solutions could take years. Addressing poverty is key to providing proper mental health care and supporting the recovery of people with mental illness.
Mass funding a virtual mental health walk-in approach mandated with technological admission is cold and artificial. It creates more barriers for youth, low-income households, and people experiencing homelessness to access proper mental health support. Ignoring the mental health needs of marginalized communities reinforces an insincere and experimental rummaging of emotions without ever building resilience.
The solution is not to create more online and phone hubs. Programs that offer one-off crisis management sessions online or by phone have been available since before the turn of the 21st century. Kids Help Phone has been providing online counselling to youth across Canada since 1989. Wellness Together Canada provides free online resources for mental health and support for substance use. Crisis Text Line Canada can be used by anyone in Canada for free, with 24/7 support. These programs are all attainable to those who have the means to access them.
Meanwhile, in-person emergency mental health support is scarce, understaffed, and underfunded. Walk-in options include a few mental health hubs for children and youth scattered around the province with strict hours of operation, or local hospital admission, notorious for prolonged wait times, poor mental health assessment, and negligent care toward vulnerable populations.
This project inevitably asks the child or youth in need to do most of the work from the very beginning. In an ideal scenario, a person seeking help will first need to access a private phone or computer, know how to get in contact, and trust the randomly assigned clinician to help them with their crisis, all while experiencing adversity and defeat.
New solutions should fund recurring therapy sessions to work through rooted problems instead of funding solutions that make it so that kids in need must start from scratch with a new clinician every time. Building foundational mental health tools for children and youth to use on their own after a single online session is presumptuous and overbearing.
This virtual walk-in format should be used as an informational guide, not an open-arms sense of relief in a time of hardship. It should also be accessed by all families, children, and youth. Expanding a virtual walk-in program to make it easier and more convenient for kids to communicate with strangers about their mental health is futile. It should not prioritize single randomized therapy sessions that can only be accessed via screen. Significant mental health support should never forgo marginalized groups.
If the Ontario government invested more in proper mental health care for all Ontarians, we wouldn’t be seeing children’s mental health care services being overrun in hospitals, families feeling overwhelmed with online and phone directories, and experiencing such violence on the TTC.