Accessing mental health care services difficult for many

Anyone who has ever felt that sinking feeling of sadness or depression setting in will have gone to Google, typed in “counselling near me” and either struggled to find something or found that the fee for getting help was out of their price range.

A 50-minute therapy session can cost anywhere from $150 to $250.

With the average household income of Canadians being $62,900, It’s hard for most to justify that price tag. For those who fall below the average household income—such as vulnerable populations who rely on government funding to survive—$150 an hour for counselling is simply not possible.

“The more you need help, the less likely you are to actually be able to afford help because the same systems that are inviting problems into your life are inviting financial problems into your life,” said Tiffany Sostar, a narrative therapist in Calgary.

Narrative therapy is a method of therapy that separates a person from their problem. It encourages people to rely on their own skills to minimize problems that exist in their lives.

Sostar is not a registered social worker or psychologist. This means her services are not covered by insurance, which can be a way of offsetting the cost of therapy for many people.

Masks are cool: Narrative therapist Tiffany Sostar chose to keep her mask on for this picture in an attempt to normalize the wearing of masks in pictures. (Photo by Michaela Pitman/The Press)

There is a positive aspect to this situation: it means Sostar can offer services on a sliding scale.

Sliding-scale is when therapists like Sostar accept payment of what their clients can afford. A person provides proof of income or lack of income and states what they can and can’t afford in terms of therapy.

Certain places like the Calgary Counselling Centre do this as well. If you show the Calgary Counselling Centre that you cannot afford the regular cost of counselling, they can adjust the rate. However, even $50 can be a large sum of money to someone who is struggling financially.

For Sostar, this is a critical issue in mental health care access. The people who need it the most, and who can’t afford it, don’t have the resources to find cheaper or free options. Sourcing affordable mental health care requires cellphones and data to research and make phone calls—not to mention the energy and motivation to do all that legwork.

Alison Jones, a 19-year-old Bow Valley College student, who has been struggled with depression set on by the pandemic, has experienced this first-hand.

“It’s quite difficult finding therapy as a student, you know, it’s quite expensive, and therapy itself is a very expensive thing and when you’re not making a lot of money or the money you are making is either going to rent and food,” said Jones.

Jones said that BVC’s Student Resources services only helped so much. It was thanks to her family doctor that she was able to be referred to the Calgary Counseling Centre for free therapy.

There was no way Jones could have afforded therapy without this referral. As is, she had to wait a month before she could see a psychologist at the Calgary Counselling Centre.

“One thing that makes me feel kind of bad is the fact that I was able to see a nurse practitioner recommended for my doctor, as well as be referred to the Calgary Counseling Center for free because not everybody has that opportunity, and I don’t know, I kind of have like a little bit of guilt for that,” said Jones.

Jones believes that she was only able to be recommended for the free therapy because she has been with her family doctor for years and she has had multiple breaks in her mental health that her doctor knew about.

Unfortunately, not everyone has a strong relationship with their family doctor. People who may not have a family doctor, like newcomers to Canada or individuals who have issues accessing health care would not have the same opportunity that Jones did to be referred to free counselling.

This where the system needs change, says Jones. It needs to truly look after the vulnerable.

Frequently, people who belong to minority groups such as the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as people who identify as black, indigenous or persons of colour (BIOPICS), may not always feel comfortable in therapy.

T, who identifies as a butch Filipinx and who has been living in Canada for the last 14 years, is part of the queer community.

T says that the biggest issue she has had with dealing with her mental health issues is finding a therapist who is not racist and not homophobic and who can understand her culturally.

Priorities when it comes to counselling: “T” who struggles with mental health says the hardest thing for her when finding a therapist is finding one who isn’t homophobic or racist. (Photo by Michaela Pitman/The Press)

“As a person of colour, I’m really struggling to find someone who is a professional who also has that anti-racist mindset—otherwise you’re gonna feel like you’re being dismissed,” said T.

This is something she has experienced, being dismissed because of her race and gender identity.

The Mental Health Co-pilots (MHC) programme is trying to combat these attitudes.

Founded in the spring of 2019, MCH is the brainchild of clinical psychologist J. Brinker. A professor at the University of Alberta, Brinker recognized accessibility gaps in the system and envisioned an organization that would address them. When conflicts of interest with the university didn’t let her pursue it, Brinker gave the idea to three of her students, Amanda Monti, Megan Reggie and Breton LaDuke.

The trio went on to found MHC.

“With Mental Health Co-pilots, our main vision is to increase mental health care access to the public, because we recognize there’s a lot of barriers for folks seeking help,” said McKenna Gawalko, vice-chair of MHC.

On top of issues of availability, accessibility, and affordability, just navigating that system on your own can be overwhelming, especially if you’re living with a mental illness.

MHC has a volunteer base of 60 individuals who help people find mental health professionals.

Making a difference: Vice President Mckenna Gawalko of Edmonton-based organization, Mental Health Copilots helps individuals find the right form and fit of therapy that works just for them. (Photo by Michaela Pitman/The Press)

“When we receive a client intake, we pair them with one of our client co-pilot volunteers. And during that first meeting, the co-pilot will find the time to learn about that individual’s history, needs and preferences and getting connected with a mental health service provider. Using that information, the co-pilot creates a tailored list of referral options for the client to discuss them, and then empowers them to choose what feels right for them,” said Gawalko.

Anyone over 18 can go to the MCH website to request their services. They’re free, and simple to access.

Organizations like MHC are trying to make it easier for people like Jones and T who have struggled with finding mental health care that fits the budget or their personal identity without being judged. But that’s not enough. Even with programmes like this in place, there are still too many people facing barriers in accessing mental health care and systemic change is still badly needed.

About Michaela Pitman 7 Articles
As a news reporting and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Michaela Pitman is working as a writer for The Press during the 2021 academic year.