Mental health care hard to come by in Canada, expert says

Three years after the onset of COVID-19, Canadians continue to feel the impact of the pandemic on their mental health.

They report high levels of mental stress as they endure constant challenges such as periods of isolation, relationship difficulties and working remotely or on the front line.

Despite the large number of people in need of support, many cannot find and afford access to mental health services.

The lack of prevention resources and treatment for Canadians increases the pressure on hospitals, leads to police responding to crises and increases the demand for social services such as housing and substance use programs, advocates tell CTVNews.ca.

A 2022 Angus Reid Institute survey reports that one in three Canadians say they struggle with their mental health.

A ‘BIG GAP’ IN ACCESS TO CARE

“There’s this huge gap in access to mental health services no matter where you live,” Margaret Eaton, national CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), told CTVNews.ca.

Data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) shows that most Canadians wait weeks, if not months, to access mental health counseling in their communities.

Between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, about half of people who sought counseling in Canada waited an average of 22 days for their first mental health appointment, which can be a significant wait when they are in crisis. About 10 percent of people waited almost four months.

Data from Ontario, Quebec, PEI and Nunavut was not available, but Eaton said problems with access to care occur across the country.

“It’s impossible for them to get the services and support they need,” she said. “A lot of people tell us that the reason they don’t get mental health care is because they either can’t find it or they can’t even afford it.”

With the pandemic, the number of people who needed mental health care increased. Statistics Canada reported in May 2020 that 38 percent of respondents indicated “deteriorating” mental health.

Those who had mental health problems before the pandemic were more than twice as likely to see their health deteriorate because of the pandemic, the StatCan report said.

People suffering from mental illness during COVID-19 were more than four times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and attempts to self-harm, it found.

VIRTUAL CARE IS NOT EQUALLY ACCESSIBLE

“During the height of the pandemic, nearly one in four hospitalizations for children and youth was for mental illness,” Eaton said.

More than half of children and youth who were able to find resources in Canada before the pandemic reported in 2022 that they had difficulty finding support, CIHI said.

The data showed that three in five children and young people aged 12 to 24 said they found it difficult to access mental health and substance use services.

While some have been able to turn to virtual care options, CIHI said access is not equal. Virtual mental health services were more accessible to Canadians who lived in higher-income neighbourhoods.

According to the report, which looked at Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia between April 2019 and March 2021, access to virtual care was granted to some patients over others during the pandemic.

This is despite the knowledge that people living in poverty and racialized communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, which has severely affected their mental well-being, making the need for access to mental health services even greater.

Without mental health services outside of hospitals, people turn to overburdened emergency rooms. The Center for Addiction and Mental Health says the annual economic cost of mental illness in Canada is estimated at more than $50 billion, which includes health care costs, lost productivity and lost quality of life.

WHAT THE ADVOCATES WANT

One thing advocates say would make a difference to those who need care is funding.

“Mental health is best treated through talk therapy, a group program, peer support, or a substance use program,” Eaton said. “None of this is covered by our Canada Health Act.”

Eaton says if Canada invests in mental health coverage, the funding will help all Canadians and ease the pressure on both those who access care and those who provide it.

“Canadians spend millions of dollars each year on private sector services,” said Eaton. “We think mental health care (should be) universal. We should all have access to the care we need, when we need it.”

In the past few months, the federal government has committed funding to specific provincially-led programs as part of its 2021 commitment of $50 million over two years for mental health services.

On Jan. 11, she announced $6.9 million in funding for youth mental health programs at YMCA locations across Canada. Programs focus on early intervention through therapy.

“There are huge gaps if the provincial (or territorial) government doesn’t fund (mental health programs),” Eaton said.

The United Kingdom has mental health care covered by its health law, Eaton said, an arrangement that has been in place for decades.

“They set up a service that has psychiatrists but also psychologists, social workers, peer supporters so they can triage the person (and) find out what they need,” Eaton said.

She hopes Canada can have a similar system to ensure seamless access to mental health services.

On an individual level, Eaton says, supporting friends and family through listening can make a difference, as can signing petitions or lobbying government officials for more funding.

That funding is needed to create mental health programs, but also for new locations of existing supports, Eaton said. Canadians need access to services in their communities.

“We also want to see more investment in the social determinants of mental health,” Eaton said. “We want to see new housing created for people with severe mental illness who find it so hard to get help and are a large part of the homeless population.”

Studies in various cities show that between 23 percent and 67 percent of people who are homeless may have a mental illness.

“We want to make sure we’re taking care of the mental health of the whole person,” Eaton said.

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If you or someone you know is in crisis, here are some resources available.

Suicide Prevention Hotline Canada (1-833-456-4566)

Center for Addiction and Mental Health (1 800 463-2338)

Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566 or SMS 45645)

Children’s Helpline (1-800-668-6868)

If you need immediate help, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.

CTV News is a division of Bell Media, which is part of BCE Inc.

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