Canadians experience barriers to psychological care

People often say that everyone is affected by cancer – everyone knows someone who has had it. I would say the same about mental illness – everyone is affected by it. Whether or not you know it, I think it’s safe to say everyone knows someone who has experienced mental illness. The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that one in five Canadians (20 per cent) will suffer a mental disorder in their lives.

I had this very eloquent editorial planned talking about the stigma associated with mental illness and the role health-care professionals can play in helping to reduce it – both in and outside of the hospital. Then this study was sent to me and I decided that even more important than reducing the stigma is making sure Canadians have access to treatment.

We pride ourselves on our publicly funded health-care system but we are failing a large number of people who are suffering – and it is a life-threatening condition. Not in the same way as cancer or heart disease, but it is just as worthy of our health-care dollars. So instead of discussing ways to reduce stigma, I have decided to let the numbers speak for themselves. I think they might surprise you. Here is a snapshot of what the Canadian Psychological Association has to say about the state of mental health care inCanada:

Canadians, in particular those in lower and middle income levels, face significant barriers when it comes to the cost of psychological services in Canada, according to the findings of a new EKOS poll conducted on behalf of Canadian Psychological Association.

“This survey should serve as a wake-up call to Canada’s governments and employers that they must do more to ensure all Canadians – regardless of income – can access the psychological care they need,” said Dr Andrea Piotrowski, Chair of the Practice Directorate of the Canadian Psychological Association. “The impact of mental illness on individuals, families, communities and the economy is clear. Psychological services are proven to be a cost-effective way to improve people’s mental health and allow them to participate fully in their family life, work and community. Unfortunately, people in lower and middle income brackets face particularly significant barriers when it comes to the cost of psychological services in this country.”

To highlight the findings of the survey and spark a call to action, national, provincial and territorial psychological associations have come together to reach out to consumer groups, health professionals and governments in order to highlight the problem of access to psychological care and find solutions. In provinces where provincial general elections are being held this fall, the associations have also written to party leaders asking them to state their positions on funding of psychological services through provincial public health plans.

“Psychological services are proven effective in helping Canadians to maintain their mental health and to deal with both mental and physical disorders,” added Dr Karen Cohen, Executive Director of the Canadian Psychological Association. “Canada’s private health care insurance plans and publicly funded programs don’t do enough to ensure Canadians have equal and adequate access to these valuable services.”

Key findings from the survey were:

  • Eighty percent of all respondents to the survey indicated that if they had to pay for psychological services themselves, costs would represent a “very significant” or “significant” barrier.
  • Similarly, 77% indicated that lack of coverage by provincial or territorial health plans would present an equally significant barrier.
  • In addition, 67% of respondents indicated that lack of coverage in employee health plans would represent a significant or very significant barrier.

When cross-tabulated by income bracket, the same data reveal that costs are much more likely to represent a significant or very significant barrier for those in lower income brackets.

  • Fully 86% of respondents whose family income is lower than $40,000 felt that having to pay for psychological services would present a significant or very significant barrier.
  • Similarly, 80% of those in the lower income bracket felt that psychological services not being covered by their provincial health plans would be a significant or very significant barrier.

In keeping with these findings, support for the coverage of psychological services by public health plans was very strong across Canada. Eighty-five percent of Canadians stated that ensuring psychological services are covered by public health plans is either very important or important.

“Canada’s provincial, territorial and national psychological associations are working together to promote equitable and timely access to psychological services for all Canadians,” added Dr Piotrowski. “This survey clearly shows that action is needed to bring down the barriers that Canadians face every day to psychological care and services.”

The full survey can be found at