Rob Shaw: Under the O: Oh my God, did that ever not go over well.
B.C.’s top officials have started acknowledging the obvious in their press conferences and public health messaging: We are all miserable and exhausted.
“I think the overwhelming majority of British Columbians are following the rules and tired of those rules at the same time,” said Health Minister Adrian Dix last week.
“The fact that they’re tired of the rules doesn’t change the fact that they’re following them.”
This is true. Most people are still hanging in there, despite a year of restrictions on who we can see and what we can do that has left many of us isolated, lonely and struggling with our mental health.
Anxiety. Depression. Self-harm. Suicide. It’s pretty much universally acknowledged at this point that we don’t talk enough about any of these things, due to the stigma and a fear of looking weak or damaged.
Which made it even more disappointing when the provincial government took a rare stab at addressing the issue on social media – and blew it spectacularly.
“Self-care can help manage some stress & anxiety during #CovidBC. Identify how you’ve taken care of yourself so far this week with the goal to complete a row, column, or diagonal,” read the government tweet Friday.
It came with a graphic titled “Self-care BINGO” with boxes that read “had fun,” “got off social media,” “danced,” “made a blanket fort,” “drank tea” and “got stuff done.” Highlighted in the middle free square was this pearl of wisdom to those whose mental health is suffering: “Cried. Let it out.”
The reaction was swift.
“This is offensive. Insulting and offensive,” read one reply. “It demonstrates how utterly ignorant the gov is to the reality citizens lives. Do your job, don’t ask the citizens to do it for you. People are dying, losing their financial security, their futures, and so . . . here’s a bit of bingo.”
“Condescending and shows a lack of professional expertise in government in this area for both messaging and options,” replied a person identifying as a psychologist (though you can never be sure on social media).
“This is offensive. Insulting and offensive,” read one reply.
One reader used his graphical prowess to remake the bingo card with what he viewed as a more realistic representation of the options facing British Columbians during the pandemic.
“Fixed it for you,” he wrote, with his version that contained “died” in the middle of the bingo sheet, as well as “lost work,” “didn’t qualify for CRB,” “slept on the street,” “can’t live on disability benefits,” and “still waiting for B.C. recovery benefit.”
And on the replies went.
Eventually, it grew to the point where a red light went on inside Government Communications & Public Engagement – the well-funded arm of the government where people spin things to make the government look good.
“We’ve seen positive feedback, but also heard we missed the mark,” government wrote in a follow-up tweet. “We know there’s a lot more work to do to get through this – we’re committed to doing the work.”
Not even an actual apology. But then governments rarely apologize for anything.
“We’ve seen positive feedback, but also heard we missed the mark,” government wrote in a follow-up tweet.
Others on social media zeroed in on the underlying problem behind the post: “Free and (low) cost mental health support? Where is it on the bingo card?” asked one reader.
“I love how ‘talk to a counselor/therapist’ isn’t on here because they actually know that most people can’t afford to, and they don’t really care,” wrote another.
What made the post so insulting was that it came from the one organization – the provincial government – that could actually tackle and make a meaningful difference in the mental health crisis, if it wanted.
More supports, smaller wait times, and free access to counsellors or psychologists are all within reach.
Instead, the government encouraged people to play bingo.
The inference in the post was that unless you’ve tried E5 (“cleaned something”), or D5 (“laughed”), or A4 (“got stuff done”) you haven’t actually tried to take care of yourself.
That fits into the all-too-common dismissal of anxiety, stress and depression as minor ailments you can just pull yourself out of if you actually put a little effort into it.
Not true. In reality, sometimes medical help and a prescription is required. Unfortunately, that wasn’t on the card.
None of this should be construed as an ideological knock on the current NDP administration. Since taking power in 2017, it has nibbled away at the edges of mental health supports. A few dozen new treatment beds here and there; a few extra million to existing programs like Foundry BC for youth.
While it hasn’t come close to the kind of structural changes needed, it’s still a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, New Democrats can’t pat themselves on the back; the party set itself a high bar in 2017 when Premier John Horgan created a dedicated Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, with a promise to create a “consistent, seamless system of mental health and addiction so that when people ask for help, they get treatment quickly.”
Almost four years later, let’s call that for what it is: A fail.
Wait times remain months long, especially for youth. The intake system at health authorities is a maze of stigma-inducing questionnaires that make someone looking for a counsellor or anti-depressants answer whether they’ve committed any criminal code offences or are currently addicted to injectable opioids like heroin.
The only option for most is private sessions with a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist – which can run hundreds of dollars an hour.
Almost four years later, let’s call the dedicated Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions what it is: A fail.
Help is, quite literally, out of reach for those who need it most.
The true solution to all of this is to treat mental health like regular health and cover everything equally under the larger healthcare system.
It seems so simple. But as the premier told me last month, it comes down to money.
Health care already accounts for more than 40 per cent of the B.C. budget. Add in mental health and it would rise even more sharply.
“I think society is there,” Horgan said when I interviewed him for CHEK News.
“The challenge is can we get a budget in place that would address those issues, [and] make sure we’re not adding additional costs to get health care for mental illness or dental care.
“These are discussions people want to have. The challenge now as we come out of a pandemic is where do we find the resources, how do we build up these systems?”
Those are good questions.
But almost four years into the current government’s term in office, with a dedicated ministry to tackle the problem, and a pandemic that has stretched people to the breaking point, you’d be forgiven for having expected we’d made more progress on answering those questions.
Instead, all we have are tone-deaf government tweets.
“Delete this,” wrote one user in reply to the government account. “This is embarrassing and incredibly cruel. People aren’t suffering because they aren’t doing enough, they’re suffering because you aren’t doing enough.”