Is private and public health care ready for a mental-health tsunami?

While group benefits plans can help employees access essential mental-health support, barriers still exist that keep people from receiving the care they need. And with the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating mental-health problems, providing adequate and affordable care is more critical than ever.

“There is a critical need for ongoing collaboration between all segments of the corporate and professional communities that are involved in addressing issues around mental well-being and psychological help,” said Dr. Sam Mikail, director of mental-health solutions at Sun Life Canada, during a session at Benefits Canada’s 2020 Mental Health Summit on Nov. 13. “The the nature of work has dramatically changed over the course of the last century with a big shift from an emphasis on brawn to an emphasis on brain.”

Read: 56% of Canadians say coronavirus negatively impacting mental health: survey

However, recent survey data and analyses from a variety of researchers have shown Canadians’ mental health is suffering, noted Glenn Brimacombe, director of policy and public affairs at the Canadian Psychological Association, also speaking during the session. 

Data from the a 2020 Sun Life survey found, while 56 per cent of Canadians said they feel the coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health, only 42 per cent are currently seeking treatment or support. Another study published by Deloitte Canada used previous pandemics and crises such as the Fort McMurray fires to forecast the utilization of doctor visits for mental-health issues.

“They project there will be a 54 to 163 per cent increase over pre-pandemic levels,” said Brimacombe. “That may or may not come true but it raises the question around rising demand for access to care and are we prepared.”

Read: Mental health firmly in the spotlight due to impacts of coronavirus, says report

The session also cited the 2020 Sanofi Canada health-care survey, which found 18 per cent of plan sponsors recently increased maximum coverage for counselling services related to mental health, including psychiatric and psychological care, and 25 per cent said they plan to increase maximums.

However, there’s a huge gap between the current medium annual maximum for counselling services set at $1,000 versus the Canadian Psychological Association’s recommendation for 15 to 20 sessions costing up to $4,000. Some 68 per cent of plan sponsors have a maximum less than $1,000, added Brimacombe. “So while some important steps are being taken, we know more can be done in this area.”

To get a better understanding of Canadians’ perceptions about barriers for accessing psychologic care, the Canadian Psychological Association surveyed 3,000 Canadians, he said. Among the findings, respondents said access to psychological services cost too much (78 per cent) and isn’t covered by provincial or territorial health plans (73 per cent). In addition, 68 per cent said wait times are too long and 66 per cent said psychological services aren’t covered by their employers’ health plans.

Persistent stigma around mental health is another barrier, according to the survey results. About half (46 per cent) of respondents said they’d rather deal with mental problems or disorders on their own, while 39 per cent said they wouldn’t want others to know they were seeing a psychologist. More than half (56 per cent) said the coronavirus has a negative or somewhat negative impact on accessing mental-health care provided by psychologists.

Read: How to support employees’ mental health during coronavirus

The survey respondents also weighed in on solutions, noted Brimacombe, citing improved access to psychologists through the pubic health system (88 per cent), psychologists working collaboratively with family health teams (83 per cent) and more funded access to mental-health services and higher financial caps to see psychologists through employer benefits plans (73 per cent). 

“There are many important elements we need to think through in terms of capacity in the system,” he said. “Could we see a future tsunami of pent-up demand for mental-health services washing up on the shores of the health-care system, both publicly and privately, and are we prepared to deal with it?”

Read more coverage of the 2020 Mental Health Summit.