Before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 40 people walked through the doors of Across Boundaries daily, looking for anything from art therapy, to literacy lessons, to a healthy meal for breakfast or lunch.

But as the virus began to spread, the mental health agency focused on helping racialized communities in Toronto’s northwest quickly began losing touch with many of the people it helped.

“Some of our staff called us and said, ‘I can’t reach my clients because they don’t have a phone,’” recalled executive director Aseefa Sarang. The agency, which serves around 900 people annually, then moved quickly to give out a few prepaid devices to those who didn’t have one. It also began delivering meals directly to people’s doors.

Two years and six pandemic waves later, Across Boundaries has now given out more than 300 phones to clients who otherwise had no access to a device connecting them to services offered virtually because of COVID-19. The need for these devices has persisted well into today, Sarang said, signalling one of many challenges facing Toronto’s newcomer and racialized communities, who were hardest hit by the virus, as the city looks to pandemic recovery.

Across Boundaries is not the only mental health organization that has worked to provide necessities like food and technology to its clients. A recent report by the Wellesley Institute about the pandemic’s impact on Toronto’s racialized communities found that many struggled with mental health challenges due to loss of income, working on the front lines and having higher exposure to the virus, living in precarious housing and being subjected to racism and discrimination.

As a result, some have relied on mental health agencies in their community to access basic needs and stay connected during the pandemic.

For researchers, the findings suggest the need to expand mental health services for racialized Torontonians, many of whom are still waiting months to access help tailored to their needs and in their language. They also call on policymakers to address the inequities that made visible minorities more vulnerable to COVID-19 in the first place, as the city and province look to move forward from the pandemic.

Mauriene Tolentino, a policy analyst for Mental Health Research Canada and one of the report’s researchers, said interviews with nearly two-dozen participants from Toronto’s Black, South Asian and Southeast Asian communities in early 2021 revealed that “social and economic impacts were very much related” to higher rates of stress and burnout.

The impact of the pandemic is evident by the record number of racialized people seeking mental health services. Sarang said calls from visible minorities to the Access Point — a centralized line for mental health resources in the city — increased by 274 per cent since the pandemic began. This is compared to an overall increase of 170 per cent.

“These are folks who are on the wait-list,” Sarang said, adding some of them are looking to access services at Across Boundaries but the agency has no capacity to take them on. Wellesley Institute researchers found the wait is even longer depending on whether an individual is looking for mental health services in their preferred language.

This is further complicated by a human resources crisis that has faced the community mental health sector, which has struggled to hire new staff as of late, Sarang said. She added most community agencies like Across Boundaries are routinely underfunded, operating within tight budgets despite the stark increase in demand for help.

For example, the agency struggled to find funding for the phones its clients needed. Of the 300 devices, 100 were provided through a donation from telecommunications company Telus. Emergency COVID-19 funding was only able to provide 40 additional devices. The rest were paid for by the agency’s main budget, amounting to around $60,000 to secure the devices and ensure they were equipped with voice and data plans. It was an unanticipated cost, yet “a necessary one,” Sarang said.

With many more clients now on a wait-list, Sarang said her agency has been working to get people short-term care before their needs escalate to a point of crisis. But this has been hard to do without additional resources.

From early on in the pandemic, racialized communities in Toronto and its surrounding areas suffered the biggest impact. Data released by the City of Toronto in July 2020 found racialized groups made up 83 per cent of reported COVID-19 cases, despite making up just over half of the population. Peel Region, which has the highest percentage of visible minorities within the Greater Toronto Area at more than 60 per cent, was the hardest hit in Ontario.

This disparity is related to higher rates of lower-income and precarious yet essential work. Research by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found 31 per cent of racialized households faced economic hardship in Canada since COVID-19 hit, versus 16 per cent of white households. They also found racialized workers to be overrepresented in industries that suffered the most job losses, making them more vulnerable to mental health decline.

While some have been able to cope by spending quality time with family or connecting with friends online, researchers at the Wellesley Institute found others have suffered restless nights and heightened anxiety over fear of catching the virus or bringing it home to their families, signaling the interconnectedness of mental and physical health.

“The main thing this research shows is that, in addition to focusing on treatment, we need to focus on material conditions,” said lead researcher Sarah Sanford. “We need to combine thinking about treatment with addressing the social determinants of health.”

It is why the report calls on pandemic recovery efforts to be focused on equity, by ensuring people have access to mental health services in their community and by supporting programs that tackle the economic hardship that continues to be felt by many.

“There’s a lot of disparity that we are all aware of now, the pandemic shone a spotlight on it,” Sarang said. She added policymakers should “make sure that we’re not waiting for another crisis to start supporting racialized communities and reducing these disparities.”

Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_