FOR every death in British Columbia, nine people experience bereavement. That translates into 15,840 bereaved British Columbians resulting from COVID-19 deaths as of July 2021.
The pandemic has hit Canadians’ mental health hard: 40% of Canadians and 42% of British Columbians have experienced a deterioration in mental health since the onset of the pandemic and those with pre-existing mental health issues have declined by 61%.
Sadly, vulnerable populations have been disproportionately affected (1). Financially, mental illness in Canada impacts health care costs, lost productivity, and health-related quality of life amounting to $51 billion annually (2).
Donna Flood, Executive Director for the Prince George Hospice Society and President of the BC Hospice Palliative Care Association, explains, “What the past year and a half revealed to us is the need for system and policy changes to advance grief, bereavement and mental health supports in our communities. As hospice societies are key stakeholders in grief and bereavement, the BC Hospice Palliative Care Association (BCHPCA) felt the need to initiate action by bringing together our communities and partners.”
On October 2, 4 and 6, the BCHPCA hosted its first virtual Grief, Bereavement & Mental Health Summit. The intent of the Summit was to provide a public platform for comprehensive stakeholder education, idea sharing, and awareness regarding the transformation of grief, bereavement and mental health in light of COVID-19 and now as we move into the recovery phase.
In her summit address, Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, gave recognition to the critical role that hospice societies and grief and bereavement communities play in the healing journeys of British Columbians during this time of loss. Malcolmson recognized hospices as, “…a valuable partner in the continuum of care, as we move away from a patchwork system of support to one filled with access points that bridge one component of care to the next.”
She ended her address by stating, “The mental health and substance abuse impacts of the pandemic will be with us for some time, so that makes us especially committed to working together and through these next crucial phases of the recovery to working hand-in-hand, making lasting changes in the services and supports that people deserve and creating brighter futures for all people in BC.” (See Malcolmson’s full address here.)
Interim leader of the BC Liberal Party and MLA for Prince George-Valemount, Shirley Bond, also welcomed summit attendees by sharing personal stories of loss during the pandemic and the comfort and support that Prince George Hospice Society provided to her family. Bond asserted, “The dialogue that will occur throughout the Summit is so critical. Our province is experiencing grief, anxiety and ultimately part of the recovery strategy must include the provision of support, resources and a focus not just on our physical wellness, but on our mental health and wellness as well. The work that you do together will be invaluable as we navigate the pathway to a post-pandemic world.” (See Bond’s welcome video here.)
Experts from BC and throughout Canada and the US engaged approximately 150 grief and bereavement stakeholders including 18 grievers and caregivers; 100 interdisciplinary teams members (including hospice volunteers); and 33 funders, policy makers and senior stakeholders. A novel approach to the traditional conference-style event, the sessions and panels not only educated attendees on grief, bereavement and consequent mental health issues, vital support roles, and value of integrating grief and bereavement into COVID recovery strategies, but also collaborated on current gaps in the system and formulated recommendations to better support the future mental health of British Columbians and Canadians.
The final day of the summit highlighted a number of key recommendations common to the caucus groups for each of the stakeholder streams:
Identify grief and bereavement as a provincial priority and a responsibility of all ministries. Inclusion of a grief and bereavement strategy in every Ministry’s mandate to guide policy development..
Build on capacity through more effective utilization of volunteers and their recognition as essential team members for service delivery.
Establish support systems that better equip interdisciplinary teams via enhanced resources, education, and training to support grief that is more complex in nature.
A Recommendations Report from the Grief, Bereavement & Mental Health Summit is one of many policy advising steps the BCHPCA will be contributing to regarding a provincial grief and bereavement strategy. The full report will be available by the end of the year.
The summit has opened up synergies and partnerships from mental health, seniors, children and youth, hospice support, Indigenous, and other stakeholder communities. It has brought allies with the same goals and missions together to begin important discussions around grief and bereavement.
The Grief, Bereavement & Mental Health Summit is the first of a series of actions the BCHPCA will be leading to continue to engage in conversations and spark action for change. In 2022, watch for information regarding grief and bereavement outreach sessions at hospice societies throughout British Columbia and an online grief and bereavement website initiative.
For more information on the Grief, Bereavement & Mental Health Summit 2021, visit www.GBMHSummit.com.