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How Public Health is caring for Niagaras vulnerable during COVID-19

"Addiction, homelessness and overdoses are not going away, they are still here.”
Mental health
Self-isolation and constant reminders of the pandemic is causing stress and anxiety in many Ontarians, a recent study shows. (Stock photo)

After a few weeks of seeing a drop in intake, Niagara Region Mental Health are seeing more people turning to the organization for support.

The department handles around 1500 clients per year, but as schools and family practices started shutting down, referrals became less frequent.

But the problems are still there, and won’t disappear just because of the pandemic, says Lisa Panetta, manager on the mental health team.

“We have to remember that all the problems we had before are still there. Addiction, homelessness and overdoses are not going away, they are still here.”

Her team of around 60 front-line workers are still meeting daily with vulnerable clients, tacking everything from severe mental health issues to addiction.

The in-person contact, as risky as it is amidst the ongoing spread of COVID-19 in Niagara, is a crucial part of the teams efforts.

They are finding many clients who crave support on the spot.

“We are doing welfare checks on people who have difficulty meeting basic needs. Banking and grocery stores are not operating in the same way as usual. We are assisting people with those things. 

Sometimes, the support worker may be the only social contact that a client has.

“Many are struggling with the social isolation. Going to a coffee shop or engaging in recreation or leisure is not available to people anymore. There is a lot of fear in society right now, and they are feeling that anxiety as well.”

A recent survey ordered by Childrens Mental Health Ontario shows how the pandemic is wreaking havoc on vulnerable Ontarians.

45 percent in the survey said their mental health has declined since the pandemic started, and 42 per cent say they have increased their substance or gambling use since the pandemic started and more than a quarter (28%) are experiencing increased tension in the household.

More serious mental health and addiction issues can be a result.

Niagara Region Mental Health said they are preparing for an increased volume of new cases once schools open up, as counsellors refer students on to services, prompting organizations in the mental health field to call on the government to stay on top of the issue.

But for right now, Lisa Panetta says it is all about caring for everyone who comes their way with serious concerns; something that her team is making possible.

“We have an incredible group of professionals. They are taking proper precautions, have their protective equipment. It is a lot more challenging for those reasons. We don’t want to put our clients or staff at risk. We are out there, we are working and have not missed a beat.”


Find Help:

Ontarians 18 and over can find free mental health, addiction and gambling support in Ontario through []( 1-866-531-2600

For Ontarians 0-18 and their families: Ontario’s child and youth mental health centres are open and provide free counselling and therapy, including online and virtual supports. Find help in your community: [](

If you are in crisis, call 911 or visit your closest emergency department.