Mental health care difficult to access in Canada, says expert

Three years after the emergence of COVID-19, Canadians are still feeling the impact of the pandemic on their mental health.

They report high levels of mental stress as they endure constant challenges such as periods of isolation, relationship problems and working remotely or on the front lines.

Despite the large number of people in need of support, many are unable to access and afford mental health care.

The lack of preventive resources and treatment for Canadians puts pressure on hospitals, forces police to respond to crises and increases demand for social services such as housing and substance abuse programs, lawyers tell

A 2022 survey from the Angus Reid Institute reported that one in three Canadians say they struggle with their mental health.


“There is a huge gap in accessing mental health services no matter where you live,” Margaret Eaton, the national CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), told

Data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) suggests that most Canadians have to wait weeks if not months before accessing mental health services in their communities.

Between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, about half of people seeking help in Canada waited an average of 22 days for their first mental health appointment, which can be a significant wait in a crisis situation. About 10 percent of people waited nearly four months.

Data from Ontario, Quebec, PEI and Nunavut was not available, but Eaton said there are problems with access to care across the country.

“It’s impossible to get the kind of services and support they need,” she said. “Many people tell us that the reason they don’t get mental health care is because they either can’t find it or can’t even afford it.”

With the pandemic, the number of people in need of mental health care increased. Statistics Canada reported in May 2020 that 38 percent of respondents reported a “deterioration” in mental health.

Those who had mental health problems prior to the pandemic were more than twice as likely to see their health decline as a result of the pandemic, the StatCan report said.

Those who suffered from mental illness during COVID-19 were more than four times as likely to have suicidal thoughts and attempts at self-harm, it states.


“At the height of the pandemic, nearly one in four hospitalizations for children and young people were for mental illness,” said Eaton.

More than half of the children and youth who were able to access resources in Canada before the pandemic reported in 2022 that they had difficulty finding support, CIHI said.

The data shows that three in five children and young people aged 12 to 24 said they found it difficult to access mental health and substance use services.

While some could turn to virtual care options, the CIHI said access was not equal. Virtual mental health services were more available to Canadians living in higher-income neighborhoods.

According to the report, which looked at Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia between April 2019 and March 2021, some patients gained access to virtual care over others during the pandemic.

This is despite the knowledge that people living in poverty and racialized communities were disproportionately affected by COVID-19, which severely affected their mental well-being, further increasing the need for access to mental health care.

Without mental health services outside of hospitals, people turn to the overloaded emergency room. The Center for Addiction and Mental Health says the annual economic cost of mental illness in Canada is estimated to be more than $50 billion, including health care costs, lost productivity and loss of quality of life.


One thing that proponents say would make a difference to those in need of care is funding.

“Mental health is best treated through talk therapy, a group, peer, or substance use program,” Eaton said. “None of that is covered by our Canada Health Act.”

Eaton says that if Canada invested in mental health coverage, the funding would help all Canadians and relieve pressure on both people who have access to care and those who provide care.

“Canadians spend millions of dollars each year on private sector services,” Eaton said. “We believe that mental health care (should) be universal. We should all have access to the care we need when we need it.”

In recent months, the federal government has allocated funding to specific county-led programs as part of its $50 million two-year 2021 commitment to mental health services.

On January 11, it announced $6.9 million in funding for youth mental health programs at YMCA sites across Canada. The programs focus on early intervention through therapy.

“There are huge gaps if the provincial (or territorial) government doesn’t fund[mental health programs],” Eaton said.

The United Kingdom has mental health coverage under its health law, Eaton said, an agreement that has been in place for decades.

“They’ve set up a service where there are psychiatrists, but also psychologists, social workers, peers, so they can triage[and]find out what the person needs,” Eaton said.

She hopes Canada can have a similar system in place to ensure that the path to accessing mental health care is seamless.

On an individual level, Eaton says, supporting friends and family by listening can make a difference, as can signing petitions or lobbying government officials for more funding.

This funding is needed to establish mental health programs, as well as new locations of existing support, Eaton said. Canadians need access to services within their communities.

“We also want to see more investment in the social determinants of mental health,” Eaton said. “We want new homes to be created for people with serious mental illness who have such a hard time finding help and who make up a large part of the homeless population.”

Studies in several cities have shown that between 23 and 67 percent of homeless people may have a mental illness.

“We want to make sure we’re taking care of the mental health of the whole person,” Eaton said.


If you or someone you know is in crisis, here are some resources available.

Canada Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-833-456-4566)

Center for Addiction and Mental Health (1 800 463-2338)

Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566 or text 45645)

Children’s Helpline (1-800-668-6868)

If you need immediate help, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.

CTV News is a division of Bell Media, which is part of BCE Inc.

Mental health care difficult to access in Canada, says expert

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