Petition calls for government to fund psychologist visits for all Albertans

Tens of thousands of people have signed their name to a petition urging the province to fund psychological support for all Albertans.

“Since August, we have experienced double-digit increases in the number of people who are coming to Cornerstone in search of low-fee counselling,” said Sheila Stauffer, executive director of Cornerstone Counselling in Edmonton.

“In speaking with colleagues in the not-for-profit and charitable counselling sector across Alberta, we are finding our current funding sources are not sufficient to meet this rapidly escalating mental health crisis.”

A group of psychologists is advocating for greater access to mental health services. The initiative began in 2019, and the government was open to discussions, but when the pandemic hit, those talks stopped, the group said.

Read more: ‘Anxiety and depression are increasing’: Alberta doctor sees spike in mental health visits

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The Expert Psychologists Interagency Clinical Network (EPIC), is made up of four psychological agencies (Kells Counselling, Insight Psychological, Dreamcatcher Nature Assisted Therapy and Cornerstone Counselling) and more than 60 psychologists.

EPIC members say right now, unless you are wealthy or have insurance, seeing a private psychologist isn’t an option.

The group would like to see the province cover five sessions with a registered psychologist a year. It is pushing the government to consider allowing psychologists to direct bill the province for up to five sessions, similar to how a physiotherapist can direct bill.

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READ MORE: New technology focuses on mental wellness for Albertans during COVID-19 pandemic

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Janet Ryan-Newell, the founder of EPIC and a registered psychologist, said Alberta psychologists have seen increases in severe anxiety, depression, grief, loss, suicidality, substance use, family violence, and complex mental illness.

“Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen a range of mental health issues increasing at critical rates,” Ryan-Newell said.

“Even before the pandemic, the medical model, mental health care system was significantly overextended. Now, as psychologists, we are increasingly concerned for the mental health of Albertans.”

Eileen Bona, psychologist and executive director of Dreamcatcher Nature Assisted Therapy in Ardrossan, said her clinic is seeing an 80 per cent increase in the number of session hours its counsellors are doing.

“Psychologists in our Calgary office are finding an increase in the number of youths, aged 15 to 18, that need mental health supports,” said Dr. Cory Hrushka from Insight Psychological. “Parents are struggling to find affordable services in the community and are finding the wait lists with AHS to be frustrating and not timely enough.”

Read more: Albertans report greatest increase of stress as Canadians’ mental health plummets

In January, EPIC was made aware that the NDP was also advocating for more financial assistance for Albertans’ mental wellness. The group has since connected with the Opposition and its petition will be tabled in early March when the legislative session resumes.

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“All Albertans have experienced increased stress and isolation through this pandemic, and many families have also lost jobs and health benefits,” said Heather Sweet, MLA for Edmonton-Manning.

“Using the provincial health insurance plan to cover sessions with a mental health professional would make a real difference in so many people’s lives. I’m proud to present this petition on behalf of these mental health professionals.”

As of 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, nearly 18,000 signatures had been added to the petition supporting the initiative.

In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Alberta’s ministry of Mental Health and Addiction said its “evidence and data suggests that the mental health system in Alberta has sufficient capacity to support Albertans during this difficult time.”

Last April, Premier Jason Kenney announced the province was investing $53 million in mental health and addiction supports as part of Alberta’s COVID-19 response. He said the funding was more than all of the other provinces’ COVID-19 mental health plans combined, times two.

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Read more: Kenney pledges $53M in mental health funding as Alberta sees no new COVID-19 deaths

“This included $21.4 million to improve access and boost capacity to phone and online supports with existing helplines, including the Addiction Helpline, the Mental Health Helpline, the Kids Help Phone, the Crisis Text Line Alberta, and Alberta 211,” provincial spokesperson Kassandra Kitz said Wednesday.

“It also included $6.8 million for clinical supports, individual and group treatment for family violence, addiction, and mental health.

“And lastly, it included $25 million for a new community grant program to enhance community mental health and addiction recovery for the public, including Indigenous communities, seniors, families and people experiencing social barriers.”

Read more: Alberta government announces $68M funding package for continuing care operators

“Most recently, we also announced the removal of user fees for publicly funded residential addiction treatment so that Albertans could receive addiction treatment without paying out-of-pocket,” Kitz said.

She added there are more than 135 Alberta Health Services Addiction and Mental Health Clinics across the province that offer intake, assessment, diagnosis, referral and treatment services.

“These clinics are open and services are publicly-funded,” Kitz said.

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Increase in mental health calls to distress line during pandemic – Jan 17, 2021

While the Opposition welcomes investment in mental health supports, it says that $53 million was “primarily grants for community support groups and crisis phonelines.”

“We have no issue with this, but giving Albertans access to multiple sessions of professional help through the provincial health insurance plan gives them an earlier and better treatment experience, with more continuity, and will hopefully start to address their concerns before they reach a point of crisis,” NDP spokesperson Benjamin Alldritt said.

The Opposition calls psychology session coverage “a practical proposal to address a real problem for Alberta families.”

“I hope that Associate Minister Jason Luan reviews it closely and implements it quickly,” Sweet said.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868  all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

The Mental Health Helpline

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  • Provides confidential, anonymous service, including crisis intervention, information on mental health programs, and referrals to other agencies if needed.
  • The Mental Health Helpline is available at 1-877-303-2642.

Alberta Health Services’ Help in Tough Times

  • Provides links to supports and services, including addiction and mental health, available to Albertans.

AHS’ Text4Hope program

  • Free service providing three months of daily Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)-based text messages written by mental health therapists.

Togetherall

  • Clinically moderated, online peer-to-peer mental health community that empowers individuals to anonymously seek and provide support 24/7.
  • Togetherall is free to all Albertans aged 16+.

AHS’ virtual addiction and mental health services

  • Services and supports free to Albertans.

Alberta 211

  • Provides information, including support via phone, text, chat and website referrals and resources addiction and mental health referrals and resources.
  • Professionally trained specialists are available by texting INFO to 211, live chat through the website, ab.211.ca or calling 2-1-1.

The Crisis Services Canada Suicide Prevention Service

  • Offers a 24/7 helpline for people thinking about or affected by suicide via phone, text or chat (1-833-456-4566).

Kids Help Phone (expanded) 

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  • Provides free, confidential 24/7 services for children, youth, and young adults.
  • Services include professional counselling by phone, and volunteer-led information and crisis support via phone, text, or chat.

Wellness Together Canada

  • Provides free online resources, tools, apps and connections to trained volunteers and qualified mental health professionals when needed.

The Crisis Text Line Alberta

  • Available 24-7
  • Offers information, referrals and volunteer-led, text based support for Albertans of all ages, by texting CONNECT to 741741.

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