Advocates alarmed as Ottawa shutters mental health portal

Ottawa’s planned shutdown of a portal to mental health and substance use care is an affront to Canadians in need of already-chronically underfunded services, advocates say.

The federal government introduced the Wellness Together Canada (WTC) site and its companion PocketWell app during the pandemic, providing virtual mental health and substance use support from professional counsellors, for free.

WTC provides access to self-assessments, peer support and confidential sessions with social workers, psychologists and other professionals.

But Health Canada says the site and app will close down on April 3.

“Now that the emergency part of the global pandemic is over, provinces and territories are best placed to support the mental health and substance use needs of their communities,” Health Canada said in an email.

Instead people will be directed to mental health resources available in their home province or territory. 

Efficient and low-cost

CAPSA is one of the services that has benefited from WTC. It receives federal funding and has had people directed to it by WTC for help with substance use. 

Since WTC started, the Ottawa-based organization has hosted 12 virtual peer support meetings per week, says CEO Anthony Esposti.

“We’ve actually received a lot of emails very concerned about the cancellation,” Esposti said in an interview.

“The cancellation of the funding for Wellness Together Canada is a real slap in the face to mental health and substance use health care in this country.”

Esposti says WTC is an efficient and low-cost way of delivering services across the country; Someone enters their information and receives an appointment to be assessed and referred to virtual services.

He says there’s still a need for those services. People who already consumed alcohol or cannabis increased their consumption during the pandemic and — in many cases — the heightened usage will continue, he says.

A young woman cowering in fear.
The federally funded suicide prevention line 988 is available in all provinces and territories, 24/7 and free of charge. Kids Help Phone is also an option through 988 for those under 18. (Shutterstock)

In 2023, Statistics Canada reported an improvement in adults saying they had excellent or very good mental health that year compared with during the height of the pandemic two years before. But symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) remained unchanged, the agency said. 

Esposti says the underlying issue is that federal health transfer payments don’t require provinces to apply those funds to mental health and substance abuse care, which ends up chronically underfunded.

What’s more, it can be hard to find mental health care since people often don’t know where to turn.

“They’re often screened out of services because they’re either not sick enough or too sick to handle,” Esposti said. “Heaven forbid that there should be an overlap of both mental health and substance use health concerns.”

Susi Milne, 63, said she found the WTC portal to be a life-saving resource.

“During the time in my life when I really needed it, it was there and I don’t know what I would have done without it,” Milne said. 

A woman smiling with yellow sunglasses, black jacket and pink, spotted scarf.
Susi Milne was so pleased with Wellness Together Canada that she’s recommended it to dozens of others. (Submitted by Susi Milne)

The Vancouver resident is sober from alcohol. On retiring, Milne figured it was a good time to do some serious therapy work. She accessed sessions with a counsellor who provided continuity as well as the self-help services on the portal.

Milne found she was so pleased with the service that she’s recommended it to dozens of others, including low income, marginalized people. 

If someone is in crisis, the federally funded suicide prevention line 988 is available in all provinces and territories, 24/7 and free of charge. Calls and texts to 988 are directed to a network of partners in communities across the country offering suicide prevention services such as counselling.

Kids Help Phone is also an option through 988 for those under 18.

WATCH | Doctor on launch of 988 mental health crisis line: 

988 hotline’s top doctor explains why the service is needed now

Dr. Allison Crawford, chief medical officer of Canada’s new suicide prevention hotline, says responders will be available 24/7 to help people in crisis.

Without WTC, Esposti is calling on provinces to step into the fray.

Health Canada said since the launch of WTC, the federal government made significant and historic investments in health care, including $25 billion for tailored bilateral agreements offering provincial and territorial health systems the flexibility to address their populations’ unique health and mental health needs.

The federal government said since its launch in April 2020, 4.2 million people have visited Wellness Together Canada — an average of over 106,000 visitors to the site each month. PocketWell has been downloaded about 59,000 times.

While Milne is hopeful the federal funds will make it to provincial programs, “at this point, there’s nowhere you can phone like you could with [Wellness Together Canada] and talk to a counselor right away,” without paying. 

If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help: