Depressed or anxious? Online help available from Victoria CBT Skills group

The COVID-19 crisis has been emotionally challenging for many people, which is why a group of general practitioners and psychiatrists on the south Island wants people to know they are continuing to offer assistance to people dealing with issues such as anxiety and depression.

The CBT Skills Group Society of Victoria has moved its group medical visits online as a result of the pandemic. The program, which is covered by MSP, teaches cognitive behavioural therapy, which aims to give people practical tools to improve their mental health by changing problematic patterns of thinking or behaviour.

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“Everyone is being challenged during these unprecedented times and it’s important to support the mental wellness of people in the community,” said board member Chrissy Tomori.

But instead of being bombarded by referrals during the pandemic, they’ve seen the opposite.

“During COVID, people aren’t going to their doctor, so we’re seeing our referral numbers dropping,” said Tomori. “We know people are struggling. So we’ve done a big blast out to referral physicians to let them know we’re open, we’re virtual and we’re running more groups.”

Tomori advises people struggling with mild to moderate mental-health conditions to call their family physicians through Telehealth to see if the CBT skills group therapy is suitable for them. If it is, patients should ask for a referral.

“We want people to be served. We know there’s a demand, especially with COVID,” she said.

The CBT Skills Group was started in 2015 by local family doctors who wanted to do more for patients coming to their offices with mild to moderate anxiety and depression. For the most part, the patients were able to cope with daily life, but they were struggling and needed support, said Tomori.

The family doctors didn’t have the skills or the time to work through these problems with them. They came up with the idea of cognitive behaviour therapy, and a couple of local psychiatrists worked with them to design the program. The psychiatrists wanted to work with the family practitioners to solve the same problems.

“Everyone realized at the same time that there was a need. Psychiatrists were looking for something and so were the family physicians,” she said.

Since then, 5,700 patients on south Vancouver Island have learned practical tools to recognize, understand and manage patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving. Groups meet once a week for 90 minutes. Patients pay for a workbook and refer to it throughout the eight-week course. The patients do homework and apply the concepts they’ve learned that week in their life. Then they come back to class and share what they’ve learned.

“The personal sharing is minimal. We don’t want people to feel it’s so revealing. It’s a very safe environment,” said Tomori. “We’re teaching them to self-manage their symptoms. They’re learning tools to improve their own mental health. It’s very empowering. We often get emails with thanks. People say it has changed their lives.”

Currently, 230 people are enrolled in the online program. Thirteen more groups are being offered this summer for up to 195 patients, and more courses will be offered in the fall.

The society is hoping to expand its program throughout Vancouver Island. It’s training up to 22 doctors on northern Vancouver Island to be CBT-skills facilitators.

The group therapy sessions are being held on Zoom. So far, feedback from the virtual sessions has been positive, said Tomori.

“Some patients are more comfortable in their homes. The online program also increases the level of accessibility,” she said.

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