Canada needs to reform its mental health system

Mental health services are medically necessary

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SFU’s health and counseling centre
PHOTO: Kriti Monga / The Peak

By: Olivia Visser, Opinions Editor

Canada needs a better healthcare system, and improving access to mental health services is a necessary step. The Canada Health Act (CHA) prevents adults from receiving long-term mental health support because of its “medically necessary” clause. British Columbia’s Medical Services Plan (MSP) only covers mental health services for people under 19, unless the situation is considered an emergency. It should go without saying that this needs to change.

The CHA regularly fails to provide fair and equal healthcare distribution. Since the Act conveniently promises to ensure only “reasonable access” to healthcare, our system sees significant disparities affecting different populations. For instance, low-income people in Canada are less likely to receive “evidence-based preventative health care,” as are those living outside urban centres. This includes services like regular check-ups and screenings. Yellowhead Institute also described the CHA as “conspicuously minimalist,” pointing out that it never mentions Indigenous peoples, “despite the emergence of constitutional Aboriginal rights just a few years earlier.” The CHA’sgrey zones” allow provinces to deliver substandard healthcare.

Over the last few decades, psychologists have stressed the connection between mental and physical health; studies have found poor mental health increases one’s risk for developing chronic illnesses. Likewise, disabled people are more likely to have poor mental health outcomes. While it’s great that Canada offers free emergency support for those in crises, mental illness is rarely a short-term occurrence. Mental health directly impacts physical health, so the CHA’s “medically necessary” clause makes little sense if mental health services are excluded. 

Adults in Canada are usually forced to seek out expensive private services for their psychological needs. Receiving a mental health diagnosis comes with sizable financial barriers. BC only has one clinic which provides free adult ADHD assessments, and CBC pointed out they stopped taking new patients in 2021. The cost for a private assessment is at least $1,000 from most practitioners. Counselling is also generally not covered by MSP, and a single session usually costs well over $100. Very few resources exist that are free, effective, and long-term.

A recent survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute and CBC found 54% of respondents felt the pandemic has worsened their mental health. COVID-19 has highlighted many of Canada’s systemic failures, one of which being the atrocious state of mental health services. Part of the issue is a lack of public resources, but psychologists have also stressed that they can’t take on new patients due to a surge in clients. As people continue experiencing record rates of mental illness, Canada’s mental health system has proven it can’t keep up with the demand. 

The Canadian government needs to reform the CHA to include unobstructed access to mental health services. These services need to be easily accessible, long-term, and preventative in nature. Those concerned about their tax dollars might raise eyebrows at this proposal, but investing in specialized mental health care offloads some of the resources that emergency services use for those in psychological distress. This could save money in the long run. Moreover, given the option of going to a mental health clinic or the emergency room, many would pick the first option to opt out of long wait times, potential trauma, and the short-term design of urgent care.

Adults in Canada shouldn’t have to suffer because they can’t afford counselling or a diagnosis. Amending the “reasonable access” and “medically necessary” clauses in the CHA would provide a basis for transforming our system into one that offers equal access and long-term mental health support. Until this happens, I won’t agree with anyone who says we have a good healthcare system.