An online portal is providing free, 24/7 information and support to individuals who need help with their mental health and substance use. Rolled out in just four weeks, the portal has improved access to care, eliminated waiting times and supported positive changes in users’ mood, wellbeing and functioning.
Key benefits and outcomes
- Individuals can access 11 different levels of support, ranging from information and self-assessment tools, through to connecting with peer support, social workers, psychologists and other specialist professionals.
- The portal supports populations who experience barriers to care, including those living in isolation or remote areas, those facing stigma, financial difficulties, mobility issues, and official language minority communities.
- As a virtual tool, Wellness Together Canada (WTC) has essentially eliminated wait times for users accessing the portal. It also provides access to care for all individuals living in Canada regardless of their location, thereby removing geographical barriers to care.
- WTC users indicated a positive change on all three self-assessment scales – mood, wellbeing, and functioning.
In March 2020, with the onset of COVID-19, the Government of Canada anticipated a spike in the need for mental health and substance use support. In response, it set out to augment services available in the provinces and territories.
One month later, the Wellness Together Canada portal was launched by Health Canada, the government department responsible for health policy.
In collaboration with established mental health and substance use partners – including Stepped Care Solutions, Homewood Health and Kids Help Phone – the portal provides free, credible information and supports 24/7 to individuals across Canada, in both official languages.
The portal is based on the innovative Stepped Care 2.0 model, a recovery-oriented, client-centric framework designed to reduce or eliminate wait times and promote client empowerment and choice. It does so by providing immediate access to a variety of supports for different levels of need and serving diverse communities. Services are organised across the continuum of care, allowing users to seamlessly ‘step’ up or down to a different intensity of support appropriate for their needs.
Depending on their needs, individuals can access these different levels of support, ranging from information and self-assessment tools, to connecting with peer support, social workers, psychologists and other professionals for confidential text sessions, phone calls or video chats. The portal also provides individuals the opportunity to assess their mental health and monitor their progress as they engage in their chosen care option(s).
The homepage for WTC portal has been optimised to provide “care first”. The portal is designed to provide benefit and value to the user without the user having to provide any identifying information −a deliberate design choice to address the importance of reducing barriers to accessing care.
Through partnership with The Decision Lab, the primary design and user experience partner, the Wellness Together Canada portal has evolved to incorporate designs and pathways that are most preferred by a diverse range of communities. Following an agile methodology, the portal undergoes regular ‘sprints’ to improve and update its interface and offerings in response to user feedback.
Results and benefits
- The portal essentially eliminates wait times for users accessing the portal.
- It provides access to care for all individuals living in Canada regardless of their location, removing geographical barriers to care.
- As of 24 January 2022, over 2.09 million individuals across all provinces and territories have accessed the Wellness Together Canada portal.
- Portal users indicated a positive change on all three self-assessment scales – mood, wellbeing, and functioning.
The primary barriers to implementation were timing and short-term funding. The portal needed to be launched within weeks and meet a variety of specifications. The portal was originally envisioned as a temporary solution to meet a short-term emergency need, with funding provided for a four-month contract. As the COVID-19 pandemic stretched on, it became apparent that the length of the pandemic and the longevity of its impacts on mental health had been underestimated.
The portal has received authorities to continue until March 2022; however, it is now apparent that there will be an ongoing need for these complementary and virtual mental health and substance use supports to address the “echo pandemic” of mental health issues. The Wellness Together Canada portal has become a feature of the virtual service mental health landscape in Canada. Long-term funding is needed to continue to address service gaps, and provide accessible mental health and substance use care options to individuals living in Canada and Canadians abroad.
- Partnership working with established leaders in mental health and substance use care is crucial for successful delivery.
- Collaboration with a leading behavioural science and digital design firm has meant the platform can be evaluated and improved to incorporate designs and pathways that are most preferred by diverse communities, which improves accessibility and inclusion.
Cindy Moriarty, Director General Health Programs and Strategic Initiatives Strategic Policy Branch Health Canada Cindy.Moriarty@hc-sc.gc.ca
International innovations in mental health
Access more examples from across the globe on how mental health services have implemented innovations in response to COVID-19.