Doctors and mental health advocates say therapy in Ontario will be even harder to access now that the government is dramatically cutting funding for the free online therapy it made available during the COVID-19 pandemic .
The Department of Health launched the program in the spring of 2020 and funded two online platforms that offer cognitive behavioral therapy (CBTi) over the internet.
MindBeacon received $24 million over two years to provide a free 12-week course to Ontarians 16 and older, but free registration ends Friday, according to public filings. A new program will take over in the fall, but MindBeacon will only receive $3.75 million in funding over two years.
The reduction means that the program is moving from a free self-referral model to one that requires a specialist referral to remain free; otherwise, the 12-week program will cost $525.
Family physician Jenny Clement said she just learned of the funding cut last week and was disappointed because she suggests MindBeacon to several patients a week.
“It took a huge weight off me 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 doctor, and how much more protected I felt than my patients were.”
According to the province, iCBT is a short-term program that helps people “learn skills and strategies to deal with symptoms of mild to moderate anxiety and/or depression.”
Its goal is to remove barriers to mental health support by allowing clients to connect anytime of the day, from anywhere, according to MindBeacon, whose programs match a client with a mental health professional who s records and provides feedback and support as the client works through exercises.
MindBeacon says it expects an 85% drop in the number of people who can access free services under the new provincial program. In the first two years, 60,000 people signed up for free, but with less funding in the future, it expects to be able to offer 9,000 free places.
According to mental health experts and health care providers, this decrease is concerning because mental health support is particularly important at this stage of the pandemic. Clement says that while the needs were more acute at the height of the pandemic, the stress has not gone away and people are now coping with the long-term effects.
“Needs are changing, but rather increasing,” she says. “So it’s really disappointing to see this incredible program being [reduced].”
The Ontario Ministry of Health did not respond to questions from CBC Toronto about the funding cut by our deadline.
New program needs extra barrier, doctor says
More than half of those who used the free program with MindBeacon had never received mental health counseling before and nearly half said they were “recovering and getting the help they needed,” 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 that people don’t have to wait; either for a recommendation or on a months long waiting 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 a program.
“That speed of getting someone into treatment, I think, is the most important point rather than waiting months and having my condition gradually get worse, or things in my life eventually falling apart, because I just don’t get the help I need,” Adams said.
Now, to get the service for free, people will need a referral from a health care organization like the Canadian Mental Health Association, or a referral from their family doctor to such an organization, which lengthens patient waits and takes time away from the resources of already busy health care providers.
“Another step to being referred to mental health resources will be a roadblock for some doctors and their patients, not because they’re lazy — because they’re so overwhelmed,” Clement says.
She also says some prefer to access mental health support anonymously, which is not 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 making sure people understand how it works. She says the first two years have proven how necessary a program like this is and she hopes to continue working with the province to find ways to provide mental health support.
“I think the challenge we have as a country right now is that we’re encouraging people to talk about it…we’ve really raised awareness about mental health. Now we have to raise the ‘what are we going to do about Because this will be our biggest challenge coming out of the pandemic.
If someone enrolls on their own, the $525 is covered by most health insurers, but Adams says more than 55% of people who used the free program didn’t have access to group benefits. .
Clément says she is concerned about any additional barriers in place preventing people from accessing mental health at this stage of the pandemic.
“It’s going to be like it always has been,” Clement says. “People who are well and have the resources will be well and people who don’t have the resources won’t be well. And I’m not okay with that.”