Knock-knock. Who’s there? The hordes of people who want more public ownership of mental health
Freya Wasteneys, Managing Editor
The other day, I heard a bad, convoluted riddle masqueraded as a joke.
A student, let’s call her Mary, can’t afford therapy, but she can’t afford not to go either. All the publicly funded options for therapy are booked months in advance, so she decides to pay out of pocket and visits one of the few clinics with a counsellor available.
She walks into a sleek private counselling clinic in Vancouver’s hospital district, and is greeted by the standard sounds of chime music and the muffled tones of a phone ringing. After checking in with the receptionist, she seats herself in the waiting room and flips through a magazine or two. They all promise the same seemingly unattainable thing—inner peace, bliss and meditative enlightenment.
Every week for the past month, she has gone back to the same counsellor, hoping to find relief from the panic attacks plaguing her, seeking to avoid a fiasco like the last time she ignored the signs. But instead of help, she is bombarded with the same information she learned in Psychology 100. Her therapist doesn’t seem qualified. Four sessions and $600 later, she feels no better than when she first came in. In fact, she feels more and more anxious after each exorbitant session, and each lecture about sleep hygiene and the fight or flight response. She finds herself in an awkward position—should she dump her therapist? Can she afford to?
Unfortunately, this riddle is one which many students face on their quest for mental health support. In fact, StatsCan reports that one in five Canadians suffer from a mental illness, but only two-thirds of these individuals receive the support they need. Mental health awareness in Canada has progressed in leaps and bounds in just the past ten years, but the system that governs mental health support is outdated. Unfortunately the support for policy changes and government regulations still isn’t there to the extent that it needs to be since evidence is often seen as anecdotal.
As a result, finding timely and affordable, let alone credible, mental health support in Vancouver is akin to getting that elusive letter to Hogwarts—highly improbable (although not impossible?). Sadly, for many it’s not simply a bad joke they can laugh off.
While the intentions of therapists are rarely malicious, those seeking therapy are often in a vulnerable position. In the precarious balancing act students often find themselves in, seeing a qualified counsellor can make the difference between getting a passing grade or flunking out of school. In other more serious instances, the consequences are more sinister. Yet, since there is no overriding provincial licensing body in BC as things currently stand, almost anyone can claim they are a “certified” or “registered” therapist, counsellor or mental health expert without belonging to a professional group or a government-regulated college. And that’s a huge problem when these are people giving advice to at-risk groups.
According to an article in the Vancouver Sun on the dangers of therapy, “codes of ethical conduct are either non-existent, self-created or difficult to enforce.” For those who entrust counsellors with their mental care, this is an issue that cannot be simply glossed over, especially when it’s the difference between getting help in a moment of need or… well—not. The system favours those who have the money to pay for it and discriminates against those who do not—and unfortunately the ones at risk are often the ones who can’t pay for it.
A study by Mary Bartram in the Canadian Journal of Mental Health shows that those who do not receive care often claim it is due to financial barriers and difficulty navigating Canada’s two-tier system. Despite best efforts from those working in the mental health system, and initiatives from the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the federal government still only contributes five percent of health spending to mental health services.
“Ultimately the work is on the patient to navigate the system, which adds to the complexity of the whole thing,” says Dr. Sylvain Roy, President of the Ontario Psychological Association in an interview with the Toronto Star. “It’s a mess for everybody.” Roy believes there is an urgent need to have public ownership of mental health and believes that the Ministry of Health in “every Canadian jurisdiction” needs to own up to the fact that mental health issues are, in fact, a health condition.
While universities do make an attempt to provide students with services, the backlog of patients is a clear sign that it’s not enough. Let’s face it, meditation workshops and free puppies at exam time are only surface-level quick fixes—they are not a solution.