Ottawa turns to faith leaders for help with mental health crisis

An OPH survey conducted during the pandemic found that between 25 and 40 per cent of Ottawa residents said they wanted to talk to someone about their mental health, but didn’t know how.

Ottawa Citizen 4 minute read September 17, 2021

They are often the ones who get frantic phone calls and knocks on the door during times of crisis. Now Ottawa Public Health is turning to faith leaders around the city to help with a mental health crisis that has worsened during the pandemic.

OPH launched a program this year — believed to be the first of its kind — to train faith leaders on dealing with members of their communities in need of mental health and suicide prevention support. The program was launched, in part, to help reach people in racialized communities who have been the hardest hit during the pandemic and who, in some cases, are reluctant or unable to reach out to mental health professionals.

“If they don’t feel comfortable going to a mental health counsellor, they will go to a faith leader,” said Hodan Aden, an OPH mental health supervisor who is in charge of the team that conducted the faith leader mental health and suicide prevention training.

That has been happening increasingly during the pandemic, she said, as Ottawa experiences a growing mental health crisis.

Ottawa’s Board of Health will vote on an Ottawa Public Health strategic action plan Monday, which highlights the need for more mental health supports in the community. It includes calls for improved access to and quality of mental health care for immigrants, racialized populations and low-income communities and more capacity to address eating disorders among children and youth. It also calls for increased capacity for special intensive mental health services in the community for children, youth and adults. The report also recommends that Ottawa Public Health implement a dashboard, similar to those used during the pandemic, to monitor and report on mental health and substance use health services in the city with special consideration given to collecting data on ethnicity, race, age and geographical location.

The report comes as more people are experiencing mental illness and substance abuse during the pandemic.

According to a provincial survey, 74 per cent of Ontario residents reported increased mental health and substance-use challenges during the pandemic. An OPH survey conducted during the pandemic found that between 25 and 40 per cent of Ottawa residents said they wanted to talk to someone about their mental health, but didn’t know how. Rates were highest among low-income residents and people with disabilities.

OPH research from before the pandemic found that members of Ottawa’s African, Black and Caribbean communities indicated faith leaders were among the first contacts they would turn to for help with mental health issues. That was one spark for the training program for the city’s faith leaders.

Aden said Ottawa Public Health heard from some in Ottawa’s Black community about instances of “over-escalation,” in which the Children’s Aid Society or police were called when someone sought help. Others said their mental health concerns were dismissed. Stories like that created a lack of trust and helped explain why some people were more comfortable seeking support from faith leaders.

“We heard that having a faith leader listen helps people to unburden themselves,” Aden said.  In some cases, faith leaders will go with community members to therapists. “These faith leaders are bridging the gap.”

OPH created a training program with input from faith leaders, who talked about what they would need to help support their communities.

“We heard that there has been a lot of pressure on faith leaders because of the high demand for mental health and suicide prevention (support),” Aden said. “We wanted to provide them with some concrete training.”

The 90-minute training will become the focus of a research paper, Aden said.


John Blakley, an Anglican priest involved in the regional interfaith council, said many faith leaders had taken it upon themselves to check on the wellbeing of members of their communities and had seen increasing numbers of people coming for help during the pandemic.

“Almost from the beginning, faith leaders had their ears to the ground,” Blakley said.

Among advice from the training session was for faith leaders to take care of themselves, he said, so that they could continue helping members of their communities.