"We're all in this together" has been a common phrase heard during the COVID-19 pandemic, and yet self-isolation and social distancing can make people feel rather lonely.
Now two University of Saskatchewan researchers and their teams are planning to tap into $400,000 in federal and provincial funding for their COVID-19 mental health projects
While U of S psychology professor Megan O'Connell focuses on virtual socialization services for older adults, Tracie Risling, associate professor at the university's College of Nursing works on implementing a texting program for people to gain access to mental health services.
Both scientists work with research partners from Saskatchewan, B.C. and Ontario.
"We really feel and hear the strain of pandemic living," said Risling.
Texting to access mental health services
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF) have awarded $170,487 and $25,000 to Risling and her colleagues.
In collaboration with patients, the nurses want to create a two-way texting program to help Canadians, particularly those underserved by the health system, get access to mental health and wellness support during the pandemic.
While the service is still waiting for ethics approval, Risling hopes they can start their so called SaskWell program soon.
"There has really been an explosion, right, of digital health and virtual care and all of these exciting tools," said Risling.
"But what we started to worry about is, first of all, does everyone know about all these resources that are out there? But second of all, does everyone have enough digital capacity in their life to actually be able to access all of these great new services?"
The researchers consider texting or basic messaging the "most common tech connection" for Canadians. The team working on the program plans to get the texting rates for participants covered for the project, she said.
"We want to really talk about these challenges or potential barriers to people being engaged in digital health and virtual care because it's only going to become more important as we move forward," said Risling.
Depending on the data access people have, the nurses can connect them with virtual mental health tools and techniques as well as no-tech options, she said.
Trusted health-care sources vs. misinformation
The project is planned to run in a 10-week cycle and also involves a patient advisory committee. While the service will first be offered in Saskatchewan, the researchers hope to expand it to other provinces as well.
"We really see this as an opportunity to connect with people, cut through the noise of the pandemic, but also the infodemic," said Risling.
"[There is] just so much information out there, you know, and much of it not accurate. And as nurses and patients working together, we want to provide people with a trusted source of information."
Risling and her team have partnered with the digital engagement platform provider MEMOTEXT for the project.
Virtual socialization hubs for seniors
O'Connell is a member of the second group receiving support from CIHR ($174,577) as well as SHRF ($25,000). The psychology professor plans to expand a pilot project for seniors in the province which uses so-called 'virtual socialization hubs' through online meetings on Zoom.
O'Connell wants to rebrand the 'socialization hubs' to more drop-in 'coffee row' type meetings, she said.
"I think we're going to be focusing a bit more on how to support them in creating their own little socialization hub," said O'Connell.
"And then the other group that we really want to get in touch with are the people who aren't reaching out because they're not comfortable using technology."
Access to program despite lack of available technology
Besides helping older adults to get comfortable with new technology, the researchers plan to use the 1-800 phone number option for Zoom so they can include seniors who don't have access to necessary technology such as computers or Wi-FI access.
O'Connell and her team have been working with the Saskatoon Council on Aging as well as the Alzheimer Society of Saskatchewan to move their programming online so older adults maintain socialization during COVID-19, she said.
People "really like doing this because it's different from the typical thing we do, which is much more therapeutic," said O'Connell.
"It's hanging out and just kind of chatting…. So it's a nice chance just to get to know each other in a relaxed kind of environment, even if it is virtual."
The next step for O'Connell and her colleagues will be to expand the project into British Columbia.
Fear of technology as a barrier
"One barrier is psychological," said O'Connell.
"So fear of using technology in a new way, so we can help with that, and maybe lack of knowledge and we can help with that. The other one is the infrastructure challenge, and we're a little less able to help with that, which is why we're now really trying to integrate telephone."
According to the University of Saskatchewan, O'Connell's team will also work on a system to monitor the mental health of older adults in both provinces by phone.
People interested in joining a virtual group or coffee row can find more information on supportoa.ca