Text4Hope: Supporting the mental health of Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic
By Dr. Vincent Agyapong
Developing healthy personal coping skills and resiliency isn’t always easy but during a crisis like a pandemic, it becomes even more of a challenge.
In response, on March 23, 2020, Alberta Health Services and the Government of Alberta launched Text4Hope, a free daily supportive text message program to help residents of Alberta address stress, anxiety and depression related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program is funded by Alberta Health Services and six health foundations in Alberta: the Mental Health Foundation, the Calgary Health Trust, the University Hospital Foundation, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation, and the Alberta Cancer Foundation.
Community members can subscribe to the program by texting “COVID19HOPE” to 393939. The Text4Hope program was modelled after the multiple award winning Text4Mood program, which has been recognized as a mental health innovation by the Mental Health Innovation Network, headquartered at the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.
As at the end of October 2020, over 50,000 people had subscribed to the three-month Text4Hope program. The daily messages have been crafted by local mental health practitioners and are based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Principles. Examples of the messages include:
- When bad things happen that we can’t control, we often focus on the things we can’t change. Focus on what you can control; what can you do to help yourself (or someone else) today? You can read some helpful tips here: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/coronavirus-anxiety.htm
- Self-care is always important. During times of stress, it becomes even more important as stress can take a toll on our mental and physical well-being. Hydrate, make a plan, prioritize sleep, meditate, unload and say no, connect with friends and family by phone even as you social distance.
Previous and ongoing research supports the efficacy of supportive text message interventions in alleviating depression, anxiety, stress and problem drinking. Text4Hope is one of the first daily supportive text messaging programs that has been used to mitigate stress, anxiety and depression during a global disaster, including the COVID-19 pandemic. The Text4Mood program was used to support residents of Fort McMurray during the wildfires of 2016.
Subscribers to the Text4Hope program are invited to complete evaluation measures at baseline, six weeks and three months. Preliminary data from the Text4Hope baseline measures suggest the levels of stress, anxiety and depression related to the COVID-19 pandemic are high at 84.9%, 46.7% and 41.4%, respectively. Preliminary results also suggest the Text4Hope program’s daily supportive text messages are effective in reducing stress, depression and anxiety levels by up to 7%, 10% and 22%, respectively, after just six weeks.
While Text4Hope is an Alberta-based innovation, the subscription is available to all Canadians. We are currently consulting with other provinces on how to make the program more widely accessible across Canada. In addition, Royal Bank of Canada and the Alberta Mental Health Foundation have recently provided funding for a national launch of an Arabic version of Text4Hope in the New Year. Given the program’s promising results in Canada, we are working with an Australian organization to launch a version of the program to support Australians during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. We have also received inquiries about the program from researchers and organizations in the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Iraq and Ghana.
Vincent Agyapong, MD, FRCPC, is a clinical professor and inaugural director, Division of Community Psychiatry at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Alberta. He practises as a psychiatrist throughout Alberta.