Sounding Board: Options to help fill the gaps in accessing mental-health care

Like many Canadians, I’ve witnessed first-hand the struggles people experience in obtaining a timely, affordable appointment with a mental-health professional. Loved ones often face lengthy wait times and disjointed care, while family members try to help as best they can. With one in five Canadians experiencing a mental-health problem or illness in any given year, they are our sisters, fathers, sons and colleagues.

When it comes to accessing mental-health care, Louise Bradley, president and chief executive officer of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, notes Canada has the lowest level of mental-health funding among all developed countries, currently accounting for just seven per cent of overall health-care spending. “There have been some gains, but funding will remain around eight per cent, while other countries are at 12 to 14 per cent. People are on wait lists for up to 18 months in some cases,” she says.

Read: Reinventing support for Canadians with mental illness

“If we keep offering the same kinds of things, we’ll get the same results,” she adds, noting there’s a real need for innovation in the delivery of mental-health care. “One of the ways is through e-mental health, or virtual care, and through utilizing all of the resources available. Studies have shown virtual care is as good or even better than in-person sessions for mild to moderate cases.”

Ann Marie MacDonald, executive director and chief executive officer of the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, agrees that the future of mental-health care is online. “Connect to people and their families where they are through virtual care,” she says. “The workplace can be isolating, and having a portal to access information and care is very therapeutic. Employees need to access supports quickly.”

MacDonald also says that while understanding how to navigate the medical system is key, there aren’t enough resources. “For example, people should have more access to counsellors and psychotherapists. Right now, you can only access them if they’re part of a benefits plan, employee assistance plan or people pay out of pocket. These services should be government-sponsored.” 

Read: New virtual health-care program aims to save employee time, support wellness

By the time Canadians reach age 40, one in two will have — or will have had — a mental illness, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. These are prime working years, and some of the lack of access to care stems from a workplace culture that can reinforce stigmatization.

“Programs must be aligned now, so employees feel they can seek help. Workplaces need to have tolerance and empathy, and dedication to workplace mental health has to come from the top of the organization. Taking small steps, with access to consistent information, goes a long way.” says MacDonald.

When employees don’t receive timely and appropriate care, it often translates into longer absences from work. Aside from being a terrible situation for the person waiting for treatment, it’s also costly for employers. That’s especially true at a time when worker’s compensation boards in Canada, such as the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board in Ontario, have made changes that now allow for the consideration of claims related to chronic mental illness stemming from the workplace.

Read: Sounding Board: How will the WSIB’s mental-stress changes affect employers?

Virtual mental-health care is on the rise as a valuable method of delivering treatment, and other new services are becoming available. Take, for example, pharmacogenetic testing to improve the accuracy of prescriptions for mental-health medications. It can be life changing for someone who has been on the wrong medication and struggled to get better. Pharmacogenetics are an emerging tool in providing improved care.

What can employers do to open up access to the appropriate level of care and support at the right time?

  • Offer free programs through the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario that can act as a bridge while an employee is on a wait list;
  • Offer virtual mental-health services to employees;
  • Consider adding access to counsellors and psychotherapists to your benefits plan, employee assistance program or internal workplace wellness efforts;
  • Include a peer support program; and
  • Learn more about pharmacogenetics through the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s pharmacogenetics program. 

Julie Holden is a senior vice-president at SEB Benefits & HR Consulting Inc.