B.C.’s looming mental health crisis has experts and government searching for new solutions for British Columbians hit by the pandemic.
But the BC Greens don’t think change has to mean reinventing the province’s health-care wheel.
The party is calling for a 12-month pilot project to provide some psychological services through the province’s Medical Services Plan in response to rising rates of stress, anxiety and depression brought on by COVID-19.
“We’re coming to terms with the fact that health and mental health are not separate from each other,” said Green MLA Sonia Furstenau in an interview. “Now it’s time for our policies to catch up to our thinking.”
Experts say the change would improve physical and mental health outcomes for years to come and reduce costs for acute and reactive psychiatric care far in the future.
“The need has always been there,” said Lesley Lutes, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia Okanagan and lead researcher working with the Greens on the pilot project. “Life is challenging. Life is stressful. People experience loss, people have great challenges like having children, working... and the pandemic has only made these stressors more acute.”
Currently a limited number of psychologists can be seen for free in certain clinics and practices across the province, such as youth clinics run by Vancouver Coastal Health in the Lower Mainland.
But for most people, access depends on the ability to pay. And the going rate for an hour with a psychologist is around $190 per hour.
“Right now, most people are just calling helplines. They’re going online and getting resources, or if they’re lucky enough to have great provider plans and insurance plans, they’re able to go see a psychologist in private practice,” said Lutes. “And the waiting lists can be months if not years long.”
The shortage of psychologists and psychiatrists in B.C. and across Canada needs to be tackled separately, Lutes said. But the pilot project would make it easier for people to find psychologists who are accepting patients, he said.
The proposed pilot project would allow any willing psychologist to bill up to six sessions with a patient through MSP in order to remove cost barriers for people seeking mental health support.
It would also allow family doctors to avoid the tangled web of helping a patient find a psychologist and instead directly connect them to someone who takes public health coverage.
For many common mental health challenges, like anxiety or depression, six sessions would be enough for a person to learn coping strategies that, potentially combined with medication, would make a lasting difference to their lives, experts say.
Billing through MSP would also help integrate psychologists into medical teams in order to treat the whole person, said Lutes, and improve health outcomes across the board.
People with chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease are more likely to develop depression and other mental illnesses, which in turn can make it difficult to manage their physical conditions.
“Embedding qualified individuals within that care team makes a difference, not just to the patient’s mental health outcomes, it also improves their physical health outcomes,” said Lutes, adding that it improves physician well-being as well.
In 2019, physicians in Canada billed around $25 million for appointments that were primarily mental-health related, which often involved issues beyond their expertise and leaves them feeling helpless if they can’t refer a patient to more specialized care, Lutes said.
“Trying to take care of the whole person without a psychologist is like trying to treat a broken leg without a physician,” said Lutes. “We just want to be part of the team.”
Health Minister Adrian Dix said last week that he would consider any plan that could improve the health of British Columbians, but the government has not made any commitment to implementing the project.
And while a cost analysis for rolling out the pilot has not been completed, previous research has shown that every dollar invested into preventative health care saves around two dollars in acute and emergency mental health intervention.
For Lutes, there is no better time to take action, when so many people are coping with new and changing challenges that aren’t going away anytime soon.
“This is about helping people cope with challenges that were there before COVID and that have just been made worse by physical isolation by social isolation, by loss of income,” said Lutes.
“There’s a lot at stake.”
Need help? Dr. Lutes is part of a team that has launched two free, virtual psychological support services in light of the pandemic. To get in touch, visit this website or email here.
And here are some numbers to call.
1800SUICIDE: 1-800-784-2433 if you are considering suicide or are concerned about someone who may be.
310Mental Health Support: 310-6789 for emotional support, information and resources specific to mental health.
Here’s also a map of crisis lines and resources by region.
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