As Canadians face worsening overall mental health and heightened levels of stress during the coronavirus pandemic, internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy can be a powerful tool in supporting plan members, said Nigel Branker, president of health and productivity solutions and executive vice-president of Morneau Shepell Ltd., during Benefits Canada’s 2021 Tech Insights conference in January.

“Our population really had to deal with an unprecedented set of triggers and stressors and there was a marked decline in mental health and well-being.”

According to Morneau Shepell’s mental-health index, 20 per cent of Canadians identified as low risk for mental-health concerns, 45 per cent identified as moderate risk and 35 per cent identified as high risk as of December 2020. It’s a significant change from previous years: between 2017 and 2019, 35 per cent of Canadians were low risk, 51 per cent were moderate risk and just 14 per cent identified as high risk.

“For the last 10 months, most of us have been focusing on the physical health and safety of employees and really evolving our businesses and adapting to our environments,” Branker said. “[But] this is a pretty serious concern [and] . . . I don’t see that going away anytime soon.”

The pandemic and broader demographic shifts in the workforce prompted demand for digital mental-health services to climb in the past year, including for Morneau Shepell’s AbilitiCBT platform, Branker said. In 2020, the service helped 30,000 plan members — well up from 10,000 in 2019 — and is expected to have helped more than 5,000 plan members in January 2021 alone.

AbilitiCBT is available as an app or a web version with programs for anxiety (including anxiety related to the pandemic), depression, insomnia and pain management. It will soon offer programs on grief and loss, trauma and obsessive-compulsive disorder and will expand the anxiety programming for panic disorders and social anxiety. “Our job is to create that optimal mix of getting support from a counsellor, but also empowering people to build up resiliency.”

Before users are assigned to a therapist, they undergo a clinical assessment to understand the severity of the issue they’re dealing with and to ensure they receive proper treatment. Plan members can work through a series of modules at their own pace and choose the level of engagement with their therapist, from occasional check-ins to regular appointments, Branker said. “The idea is for the therapist to work with you, to walk you through this structured module approach of understanding your symptoms, setting a foundation for self-care and then working your way through thought patterns.”

Branker cited data from the anxiety program specifically, which showed users with all levels of anxiety — mild, moderate and severe — demonstrated reductions in their symptoms by the end of the module. While results for users with mild symptoms were comparable to other self-directed programs, Branker said AbilitiCBT had the most impact with users suffering from severe anxiety — for example, those who started the program identifying their anxiety as a level 12 reported being at a level seven or eight by the end.

“That, to me, is the real value for organizations, because that’s the group who, when they start to struggle with their symptoms, are less likely to reach out for help and are more likely to cope in bad ways. That group, without getting help, ends up either off work on disability or leaves the workplace. Our theory and our thinking is, ‘why wait until someone’s off work to get them the care that they need?’”