For many people who struggle with mental illness in Canada, professional help isn’t an option. One session with a psychologist can run upwards of $200 per hour and many employee benefit packages only cover a handful of mental health care visits per year. Most plans lump in mental health care coverage with physio and massage therapy.
Manulife, which employs 9,000 people in Canada, recently overhauled its benefits plan to increase mental health coverage to $10,000 per year for employees and each of their family members. This is one of the largest amounts for this type of coverage offered by Canadian employers.
Starbucks made a similar change late last year, upping mental health coverage to $5,000 per year for employees.
It’s a move that’s applauded by mental health experts and those who have struggled with mental health issues. So should more Canadian companies follow suit?
“A mental health problem is one of the biggest reasons that staff are away from work, and/or affects productivity while people are at work,” Ione Challborn, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association Edmonton Region, said.
Mental illness affects 20 per cent of Canadians and it’s the number one cause of disability in the country, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
The recommended hourly rate for a registered psychologist in Alberta is $190 and effective psychological treatment requires 15 to 20 sessions, according to the Psychologists Association of Alberta (PAA). That can cost a person up to $4,000 per year. Many benefits packages in Canada cover between $500 and $1,500 for mental health services per year.
Challborn said providing access to mental health services will lead to happier, more productive employees.
“To be able to get early intervention and treatment and sustain that… will increase the person’s ability to be productive, not only at work, but to be engaged in community.”
Stephani Kingsmill, executive vice president of Human Resources with Manulife, said their employees are not immune to mental illness and the company wanted to provide employees enough coverage so they wouldn’t have barriers to access care.
“Support for mental illness is something that’s an ongoing requirement. It’s not something we wanted employees to worry about – a limited number of visits in a specified period of time,” Kingsmill said.
“Having engaged employees is good for the company because it impacts productivity, it reduces absenteeism, we also know that mental illness is a significant contributor to disability insurance claims which also has a financial impact on the company… It’s just good for business and good for Canada.”
Blakes Loates is a former psychiatric nurse who has battled Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and depression for nearly 20 years. She said her mental illness often forced her to call in sick and she applauds companies for recognizing the importance of mental health care.
“I think it’s awesome and I think it’s about time, actually. It’s so hard for people to access mental health care at an affordable rate,” she said. “It’s not a luxury. It’s something people essentially need in order to get through their bout of depression or get through their time of hardship and illness.
“There is a whole other branch to wellness that we’re not looking at, and we need to be looking at.”
Loates said two to three sessions with a mental health professional isn’t enough to even begin to scratch the surface.
“The therapeutic process is a heck of a lot longer than two to three sessions. Two to three sessions does virtually nothing, in my opinion,” she said. “By session three, you’re just starting to get into the recovery process.”
Now a self-employed photographer, Loates said therapy continues to be an important part of her recovery and doesn’t know where she’d be without it.
“If I’d never had access to it, I don’t know that I necessarily would have been here. I’ve been suicidal many times in my life and therapy has been an essential part of my recovery.”
The annual cost of mental illness to the Canadian economy is $51 billion, according to the PAA. The Mental Health Commission of Canada said the impact of mental illness on the productivity of workers is tens of billions of dollars each year.