WINNIPEG -- Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and Manitobans are also experiencing an epidemic of loneliness say mental health professionals.

“One of the major issues is isolation,” said Stephen Sutherland, program director for the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, on Friday.

“It’s one of the major stressors that people are facing, not being able to connect with people,” said Sutherland, adding that meaningful social connections are crucial to maintaining good mental health. 

Technology can help bridge the gap but virtual connections are rarely a substitute for the real thing.

“In the beginning of the pandemic we had a great virtual engagement and we’ve seen that slowly decline as people are just tired of being in front of a screen,” said Sutherland. 

Data from provincial mental health programs reflect that sentiment. 

At the onset of the pandemic, the provincial government launched AbilitiCBT, a free therapy program accessible on smart devices.

AbilitiCBT has had 6,094 people register since starting in April, according to the province.

A second program launched months later has had far less engagement. 

Only 143 people have signed up for the free two-hour virtual counselling sessions, which the province began offering in October. 

Rita Chala, executive director of the Mood Disorder Association of Manitoba, says the lack of reliable internet and technology are affecting how Manitobans access mental health resources. 

“What we’re seeing is that the longer that people are not able to engage , the longer that people are not taking care of themselves, it’s making it more difficult,” said Chala.

The length of the pandemic is also wearing on the mental health of Manitobans, witling down on resiliency. 

“As time goes on and hopes starts to diminish, that’s when suicide could become an option,” said Mara Grunau, the Centre for Suicide Prevention’s executive director.

Grunau stresses it is still too early to say if the pandemic is causing an uptick in suicide rates in Manitoba or across Canada. That data will likely not be available for months, if not years, to come.

Despite the stressors, the pandemic is making it easier to speak openly about mental health, says Grunau.

“The pandemic has helped us in terms of de-stigmatizing mental health,” said Grunau.

“The stigma prevails but we’re talking about it more and it’s more of a commonality than it would have been before.”