Dozens have taken advantage of an Alberta government initiative announced in June to expand mental health counselling.
It’s a good start but those behind the project that provided $6.5 million over two years to Counselling Alberta to expand access to affordable and accessible mental health supports across the province want to continue to spread the word about the help available.
Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Mike Ellis and Counselling Alberta executive director Robbie Babins-Wagner held a virtual news conference on Tuesday to ensure those suffering from mental health issues know where to go for help.
“I think it is so important that people in rural Alberta are aware of the mental health coverage,” said Ellis.
To help those outside major centres, Counselling Alberta was formed as a new division of the Calgary Counselling Centre. The centre fields calls from those seeking help and directs them to counsellors and other services.
“Nobody is turned away. There are no wait times,” said Ellis.
Importantly, services are designed to be affordable. “If all you can afford is to pay $20, you pay $20.”
Those who call in for help in the morning will be assigned a counsellor by the afternoon. Afternoon callers will get a callback the next morning. There are also counselling spots held open every day at 4 p.m. to help those who need to speak to someone right away.
Services are available Monday through Saturday and in more than a dozen different languages. Questionnaires have been translated into two dozen languages.
That there is a need is clear.
“When the pandemic started in March of 2020, we started receiving calls from people across the province saying, ‘Can you see us?’ And our answer is always ‘yes,’” said Babins-Wagner, who holds a PhD in social work and has been involved in counselling for 30 years.
Since then, the counselling centre has helped 28,000 people and provided more than 103,000 counselling sessions. That’s about a 20 per cent increase over normal levels.
“If we’re not the right place, we’ll get you to the right place,” she said, adding they have partnerships with numerous organizations province-wide should other health or police help be needed.
Babins-Wagner said she has reached out to communities across Alberta to find out what services they have available so clients can be directed to them if required.
Those who contact the counselling centre, fill out a short questionnaire, which creates a sort of mental health vital signs chart. That information can be seen by clients and gives them a means to track their improving health.
Typically, clients will have six or seven counselling sessions. “We really try to customize our services for every individual or family.”
Ellis said the opportunity to provide virtual services has been a big advantage in expanding the reach of counselling.
“Us being able to offer virtual supports in every quarter of this province and especially those in rural or remote northern Alberta has been really a game changer in this field.”
Babins-Wagner said research has shown that virtual counselling is effective. “The outcomes of virtual counselling are equal to, if not better, than in-person service.”
For those who do not have easy access to online links, counselling by phone is available. Counselling Alberta is also setting up selection locations around the province for those who prefer person-to-person contact.
Alberta spends about $1 billion annually on addiction and mental health programs. In the last budget, $70 million was allocated to build a recovery-oriented system of additional and mental health care and to increase access to services.