REPORT: The Road to Recovery Webinar Series - The State of Public and Mental Health in Niagara
We attended the Southern Niagara Chamber of Commerce’s webinar entitled The Road to Recovery - State of Public and Mental Health in Niagara on October 5th and have compiled an overview of all that was discussed.
Moderated by John Armstrong of Armstrong Communications, the second of six Road to Recovery webinars focused on the state of physical and mental health of our Niagara community 19 months into the Covid-19 pandemic.
Joining in and lending their expertise to this conversation were Mat Miller - Principal at Grimsby High school, Nancy Garner – Exec Director Quest Community Health Centre and Dr. Mustafa Hirji – Niagara’s Acting Medical Officer of Public Health & Commissioner, Public Health.
Dr. Hiji opened by sharing that the imposed government restrictions designed to limit infection amongst our community has and will have side effects that affect both our mental and physical health. The loss of jobs, mobility, interaction and restricted social activity severely affect our economic growth, but they also affect our physical and mental wellbeing. In fact, Dr. Hirji speculates that it will be years before we, as a community, recover.
With 38% of Ontarians reporting a decline in mental health since the pandemic began 19 months ago, Niagara Region’s most vulnerable communities have felt the brunt of the physical and mental strain.
Nancy Garner of Quest Community Health Centre, a not-for-profit service that focuses on the health and wellbeing of individuals, providing comprehensive services for every aspect of life – physical, mental, emotional and social, where our traditional healthcare system falls short. She explained that those communities who already faced barriers like lack of food and housing, social isolation, chronic and persistent mental illnesses saw a heightened decline in their health throughout the pandemic.
Which makes total sense; if they were struggling before, the pandemic only exacerbated the challenges they had to deal with. Moreover, while the Government has announced funding for treating mental health, Dr. Hiji notes that “once you’re at the stage of treating mental health, you’re already at the end of the healthcare process” and that we need to instead focus investments to address the “socioeconomic and environmental state” the region is in by addressing the upfront issues like ‘helping the homelessness problem, skills for better employment and providing a nurturing environment for young children.’
Nancy echo’s Dr Hirji’s concerns noting that the lack of safe and affordable housing negates the funds provided for mental treatment, as it is near impossible to provide trauma therapy on an individual that is homeless as the issue still exists.
“A safe place to live, income and food are key to increased mental health” in anyone, but much more so with our vulnerable communities.
“The sheer lack of resources within the region requires a different approach” than the Government has taken - they need to ‘recognize that the social conditions in which we live are the biggest drivers of overall health - it’s 60% socioeconomic, 30% environmental and 10% healthcare’. A long term investment into these issues will better benefit mental health down the road.
While the health sector of the Niagara region certainly had its challenges before the pandemic hit, particularly with the Government efforts to consolidate health services to save money. But now, as per Dr. Hirji, the restrictions in social activity throughout the pandemic, the backlog of healthcare services and the fact that many folks were scared to visit a doctor during the height of the pandemic are now resulting in health professionals seeing an increase in longer term physical health issues. Beyond that, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, excessive smoking and drug use throughout the pandemic has resulted in an overall general health decline in the region.
Nancy sees this as an opportunity for healthcare providers to work together with Ontario Health to find a more seamless mental health experience for the Niagara Community, while Dr. Hirji would like to see Niagara continue to work with Ontario Health to build relationships and share priorities to create a forum that will enable the region with the necessary provincial support.
As the webinar came to a close John Armstrong asked each speaker to offer one, and only one issue to prioritize here in Niagara:
Dr. Hirji surprisingly spoke to addressing homelessness and quality housing.
Nancy suggested stronger education around opioids, applauding how the stigma is being lifted with more and more people speaking openly and honestly about the issue. Nancy further commended the honesty we’re seeing in obituaries as it is helping to reduce the shame around mental health and addiction.
Mat noted that he’s implemented both a Health Action team including both peer to peer and curriculum based education around mental health issues; empowering students to be active participants.