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“They don’t feel valued as humans” – Covid, mental health and the very poor in Nova Scotia

Photo Evan Mitsui/CBC

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – COVID-19 has hit the very poor in Nova Scotia hard and left many of those living with mental health issues in a very precarious place. Insufficient financial support, a lack of affordable housing and inadequate mental health services have made a bad situation even worse. We must get out in front of these issues now, because we won’t be able to afford the level of ill health that we will see coming down the road as a result of this pandemic.  

That was the message delivered by Pamela Magee, executive director of the Nova Scotia division of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) to members of the Community Services Standing Committee. 

The committee met this morning to hear about the impact of the pandemic on individuals who are on social assistance or in other ways supported by the department. 

“Marginalized Nova Scotians feel very disconnected. A lot of it has to do with their social economic status, and their inability to secure the means to stay connected, either because of a lack of internet or devices to reach out and stay connected, or they’ve lost access to primary care because of the pandemic and they feel very vulnerable and alone,” Magee told the MLAs.   

“We’re hearing this also from among those that are contemplating suicide and have lost hope, that they feel that there isn’t a door that they can walk through to receive timely  and adequate care,” said Magee.

The need to catch mental health issues early

All CMHA staffers throughout emphasized the need to catch mental health issues early and how inadequate funding was making this difficult if not impossible.

“Getting the services we need in a timely manner is critically important,”said Bev Cadham, a program coordinator with the CMHA Halifax Dartmouth branch.

“There’s many people in our community who fall through the cracks, they don’t reach out, or they have tried to access the services that are in place on the formal system, and have not had any luck in doing so. As a result of that, critical issues arise. The chances of them reaching out again in another situation diminishes because they are frustrated and they know they don’t feel worthy. If they’ve been denied access the first time, that is just exacerbating the issue that they are living with poor self esteem, anxiety, depression, addiction issues on top of all that, and they feel very discouraged,” Cadham said. “They don’t feel valued as humans.” 

Lack of clarity around CERB eligibility

Cape Breton Centre MLA Kendra Coombes asked about issues faced by income assistance recipients who received CERB payments. At the department’s insistence many welfare recipients with part time jobs applied for CERB and left the income assistance program. Now it seems some of them have trouble returning to the Income Assistance rolls. 

Even more concerning, we know that some social assistance recipients successfully applied for CERB without meeting all the conditions to qualify. The same is true for others who are not on social assistance but live on very low incomes. 

In the early days there were conflicting messages from the department of Community Services regarding repayment and double payment, said Susan Henderson, who works for the CMHA Colchester – East Hants branch. Some people incorrectly thought they qualified. 

“And who could blame them, I guess is my point. We’re talking about (people) trying to meet the basics of food security and basic living needs. And when you know that money was offered, it was a very, very difficult decision for many of our folks,” Henderson said. “This also affects folks who are not connected to income assistance, maybe they’ve lost their job or faced other issues and other pressures that will absolutely be facing eviction if they’re not able to secure money.”

“I just wish that there was more time given to looking at the history of the person. Not everyone receives timely care. Some people have fallen through the cracks with their mental health care, say a woman had been involved with the mental health system for debilitating anxiety since they were preteen, and then became disconnected from the system. When people get disconnected  from income assistance, where do people go? Think for yourself? Have you ever been in that situation where you had no income? Have you ever been in that situation? That’s a very scary place to be,” said Marg Murray, who works for the CMHA Halifax-Dartmouth branch.

We can’t wait for Nova Scotians to become ill!

In her closing statement Magee issued a dire warning if the province doesn’t act now.

“We can’t wait for Nova Scotians to become ill as a result of the traumatic impact of the pandemic. We need to really revisit the way that we have medicalized mental health, made it an almost criminalized issue, to the point that we have created great stigma around it,” Magee said. 

“We need to get out in front of the issue now to make sure that Nova Scotians are healthy, because we won’t be able to afford to support the level of ill health that we will see coming down the road as a result of this pandemic.”

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