VANCOUVER -- It’s one of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that may not be as easy to see, but a program that provides mental health support for physicians and their families in B.C. is preparing for an increase in demand for help as time goes on.

Physician Health Program executive director Dr. Andrew Clarke told CTV News Vancouver there may be a longer-term effect.

“It is what has happened in other places,” Dr. Clarke said. “We get very good at postponing dealing with stuff, and then all of a sudden, it just becomes too much.”

The Physician Health Program provides a 24-hour confidential helpline for physicians, residents, medical students, and relatives of doctors, which connects them with a counsellor. The program can also provide referral to specialized support. In 2019, there were 891 requests for service from doctors and trainees.

Now, a new partnership with the UBC psychiatry department is expected to increase access to psychiatric services through the program for those who need it.

Professor and head of the university’s psychiatry department Dr. Lakshmi Yatham said based on the aftermath of the outbreak in China, they were also expecting a “significant surge” in demand for mental health support.

Dr. Yatham said he put a call out to psychiatrists who are members of the faculty, asking if they would be willing to help. About 50 responded, and he believes there may end up being more. Now, those psychiatrists are being connected with the Physician Health Program.

“We should be able to offer a full assessment for anyone within a week, which is pretty good, considering a typical wait list to see a psychiatrist in the province is a minimum of months,” said Dr. Yatham. “We know that physicians are notorious at not seeking help earlier on, so we wanted to remove the barriers as much as possible because we want to make that they’re supported so that they continue to do the work that they’ve been doing to help people with COVID-19.”

Dr. Clarke said while they haven’t seen a change in demand for services to the program yet, he said there has already been some impact.

“For a small population of doctors, they have been very much affected by this, so in some certain cases, we’ve seen doctors either have new diagnosis of a severe mental health issue... or worsening of a mental health condition that was already there,” Dr. Clarke said. He added dealing with rescheduled surgeries in the months ahead will also be challenging. “That may be one of the things that is actually one of the hardest problems to solve going forward.”

Dr. Yatham said there’s also the stress of dealing with a highly contagious virus, including worries about asymptomatic infection, as well as long hours in intensive care and possible lack of sleep.

“If those things continued over a prolonged period of time, of course we would expect much more significant impact on mental health,” he said.

Dr. Clarke said they were “overjoyed” to have the additional psychiatrists on board to help out.

“As a result, those medical professionals are either going to be able to stay at work, and continue serving patients, or they’re going to be able to get back to work faster, so in the end, it’s also helping all the patients in British Columbia,” he said.

The Physician Health Program's 24-hour helpline can be reached at 1-800-663-6729.