SUDBURY -- The Canadian Mental Health Association says social connections are a way to protect our mental health during these difficult times.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the association's Sudbury/Manitoulin branch is finding a new way to lead its annual mental health week, which kicked off Monday morning with a virtual Zoom meeting.

This year, the CMHA is focusing on the importance of social connections, especially now, a time when people are being asked to physically distance themselves from others. 

"Most Canadians want more social connection, yet they're reluctant to have the kind of honest, open conversations that build the connection they crave," Margaret Eaton, national CEO of CMHA, is quoted as saying in a news release. 

"In our society, it's a cultural norm to ask people how they're doing, but not to expect -- nor provide -- a truthful answer. This mental health week, it's time to get real about how we feel. It's clear we need each other more than ever." 

In Sudbury/Manitoulin, the association has moved several of its services online, allowing them to still help people while still practising physical distancing. Officials say e-visits took place before the pandemic, but the virus has helped show how important it is to reach those in need regardless of the circumstances. 

"Due to physical distancing measures, people are isolated in their homes, missing out on family events and in-person activities and it appears they're feeling it," the local CMHA said in a news release. 

"Almost half of Canadians are feeling anxious (47 per cent), and only eight per cent are feeling happy. As we face social distancing measures, it's important to note that people don't need to be close to feel close." 

The organization recently launched Here2Help, a new resource aimed at those in immediate need of help. There are no firm statistics yet to indicate whether the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increase in mental health issues locally, but Here2Help is available for anyone who is struggling. 

"Here2Help links those in need of immediate mental health support to virtual care, including peer support, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as well as online resources from the most reliable sources," the release said. 

It also includes a self-referral form, making it easy for an intake worker to connect the client with an appropriate CMHA program. 

The association is also offering free online mental health presentations. The first, "Supporting your Mental Heath during the Pandemic," is May 20 at 10 a.m. and is available to everyone through Zoom. 

"Strong social networks lead to better self-esteem, coping mechanisms and a sense of welling being, and reduce depression an distress by providing emotional support, companionship and opportunities for meaningful social engagement," the release said. 

Mental Health Week runs May 4-10.