How a Valley-based program is helping people overcome anxiety and depression.




A few years ago, a fog rolled in on me, gradually placing a dim, grey mist over my view in all directions. I didn’t choose for it to happen, and I didn’t notice as it began to settle in. But eventually, it obscured my life, so that each day seemed long and dreary, like something to be endured instead of enjoyed. 

The fog came in with a heavy feeling—a pressure in my chest, indefinable, yet insistent. It told me constantly that everything I did was terrible and that I was failing as a mother, wife, and human being. I was irritable and irrational (though I didn’t think so at the time). Life seemed pointless.

These are some of the most classic symptoms of depression. I didn’t realize that’s what I had, because I was always able to haul myself out of bed, and most days, I managed to get all my tasks done. But my brain never stopped telling me how awful everything was.

(Spoiler alert: My brain was lying to me. And I believed it.)

If you’re feeling like this right now, you’re not alone. In 2016, it was estimated that depression affects about 11 per cent of Canadians at least once in their lives. Research suggests an increase in this number since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Family doctors do a LOT of work around anxiety and depression. It’s a key part of people’s overall health. But there’s only so much your doctor can help in a typical 10-minute appointment, and even though early intervention is recommended, there aren’t enough mental-health professionals to go around.

Medications can definitely play a useful role, but there’s something else that can help: cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT.

Numerous evidence-based studies have shown it to be very useful in dealing with mild to moderate depression and anxiety.

CBT is a set of practical skills that help you fight back (gently) against automatic negative thoughts about yourself and the world. It’s not like stereotypical psychotherapy: you don’t delve into past issues to figure out exactly why you think or feel a certain way. Instead, CBT helps you challenge your existing unhelpful beliefs and behaviours as they’re happening, which helps you defuse them.

In the Comox Valley, a new program called CBT Skills Group is helping people learn to manage their thoughts so they can allay mild to moderate depression and anxiety. When local doc Marie-clare Hopwood heard about a similar program at a conference in Vancouver a few years ago, she knew it would benefit the Valley. “Like all communities, we have a challenge of not having enough psychiatrists,” she explains. “So this is a good way to help people.”

Hopwood worked with the Divisions of Family Practice to establish the program here. Then she and two other doctors, John Law and Deni Hawley, undertook the training to deliver the eight-week program, which consists of 90-minute CBT sessions in a group of 15 people, plus under an hour of homework per week.

In the sessions, participants learn some basic neuroscience (why does your brain tell you all this garbage? How does it affect your body?), mindfulness practices, and ways to kick your negative thoughts to the curb.

“The group format works really well,” says Hopwood. “We try to form a situation where people find it easy to speak up. Zoom is good for that because everyone gets a chance to speak, which doesn’t always happen in a face-to-face setting.”

You aren’t required to share a lot of deeply personal information in the sessions. Every week, there’s an opportunity for people to share how things went when they tried out the skills they learned the week before. “It’s great to see people saying, ‘Oh, that really worked!’” says Hopwood. “We see lots of light-bulb moments.”

CBT Skills Group began as an in-person program, but shifted to Zoom during COVID, which makes it extremely convenient. And it’s free. Yes, that’s right. Because the program is offered by physicians, your attendance is covered by MSP. A small registration deposit is refunded after you’ve attended all eight classes, and you can purchase a $35 workbook or just access the free one online.

The only fine print is you must commit to attending the whole eight-week program, and you must be referred by your family physician, nurse practitioner, or walk-in clinic.

Although the CBT Skills Group wasn’t around the last time the fog rolled in for me, I’m a huge fan of the practice, and I’m very happy to know the group is there for people who could use a guiding light right now.

And, as Hopwood says, “Don’t think, ‘Oh, my issues aren’t that bad…’! It’s about whether you could feel better.”

If you think you might have depression/anxiety, ask your family doctor about joining the group. If you’re feeling suicidal, call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1.833.456.4566.