Doctors and mental health advocates say therapy in Ontario will be even more difficult to access now that the government is significantly reducing funding for free online therapy it made available during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ministry of Health introduced the program in the spring of 2020 and provided funding to two online platforms that offer internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (iCBT).
MindBeacon was given $24 million over two years to offer a free 12-week course to Ontarians 16 and up, but the free enrolment ends Friday, according to public documents. A new program will be taking over in the fall, but MindBeacon will only see $3.75 million in funding over two years.
The reduction means the program is changing from a free self-referral model to one that requires a specialized referral to remain free; otherwise the 12-week program will cost $525.
Family physician Jenny Clement said she just happened to learn about the funding cut last week and is disappointed since she suggests MindBeacon to several patients a week.
“That just took a huge weight off of my mind as a family doctor to say I’m recommending something that I know isn’t cost prohibitive,” she said. “I can’t even tell you how much easier it made my life, as a physician, and how much more protected I felt my patients were.”
According to the province, iCBT is a short-term program that helps people “develop skills and strategies to address symptoms of mild to moderate anxiety and/or depression.”
Its aim is to remove barriers to mental health support by allowing clients to login anytime of the day, from anywhere, according to MindBeacon, whose programs match a client with a mental health professional who checks in and provides feedback and support as the client works through exercises.
MindBeacon says it’s expecting an 85 per cent drop in the number of people who can access the free services under the new provincial program. In the first two years it saw 60,000 people sign up for free, but with less funding going forward, it expects it’ll be able to offer 9,000 free spots.
That decrease is something mental health experts and health-care providers say is worrisome, as mental health support is especially important at this stage of the pandemic. Clement says while needs were more acute at the height of the pandemic, the stress hasn’t gone away and people are now dealing with the long-term effects.
“The needs are shifting, but they’re increasing if anything,” she says. “So it’s really disappointing to see this incredible program be [reduced].”
Ontario’s Ministry of Health didn’t provide a response to CBC Toronto’s questions about the reduction in funding by our deadline.
New program requires an added barrier, doctor says
More than half of those who used the free program with MindBeacon had never received mental health counselling before and nearly half reported “recovering and getting the help that they require,” says Karen Adams, president and CEO of CloudMD, which purchased MindBeacon earlier this year.
She says one of the most effective things about iCBT is people don’t have to wait; either for a referral or on a months-long wait list to see someone in person.
Adams says those who signed up on their own only had to wait a few days before they were matched with a therapist and programming.
“This speed in getting someone engaged in treatment I think is the most important point rather than waiting months and I get progressively worse, or things in my life just end up falling apart, because I’m just not getting the help that I require,” Adams says.
Now, in order to get the service for free, people will need a referral from a healthcare organization such as the Canadian Mental Health Association, or a referral from their family doctor to such an organization, which adds to the wait for patients and takes up resources from already-busy healthcare providers.
“Another step to getting referred to mental health resources is going to be a barrier for some physicians and their patients, not because they’re lazy — because they’re so swamped,” Clement says.
She also says some prefer to access mental health support anonymously, which isn’t possible with the requirement of a referral for free services.
Adams told CBC Toronto MindBeacon “has some work to do” when it comes to promoting the new program and ensuring people understand how it works. She says the first two years proved how needed a program like this is and she hopes to continue working with the province to find ways to offer mental health support.
“I think the challenge we have as a country right now is we’re encouraging people to talk about it … we’ve really elevated the awareness of mental health. Now we’ve got to elevate the ‘what are we going to do about it’ piece? Because that is going to be our biggest challenge coming out of the pandemic.”
If a person does sign up on their own, the $525 is covered by most health insurance providers, but Adams says more than 55 per cent of the people who used the free program didn’t have access to group benefits.
Clement says she’s concerned about any additional barriers in place preventing people from accessing mental health at this stage of the pandemic.
“It’s going to be the same as it always is,” Clement says. “The people that are OK and have the resources will be OK and the people that don’t have the resources will not be OK. And I’m not OK with that.”