Calgary

Group of psychologists call on government to fund mental health services for all Albertans

The group wants psychologists to be allowed to direct bill Alberta Health Services for up to five sessions per year, in the same way physical therapists and optometrists already do.

Pandemic related mental health stress causing rise in demand for services

New research suggests signs of anxiety, depression, stress, as well as support-seeking expressions have significantly increased during the COVID-19 period, and group of Alberta psychologists are calling on the provincial government to help. (KieferPix / Shutterstock)

A grassroots group representing more than 60 private psychologists is calling on the provincial government to fund psychological services for all Albertans.

"We've been deluged, really, with people who have more intense needs, more critical needs, more urgent needs — isolation, depression, anxiety. It's across the board, and it's very alarming," said registered psychologist Janet Ryan-Newell, a founding member of Expert Psychologists Interagency Clinical Network (EPIC).

The group wants psychologists to be allowed to direct bill Alberta Health Services for up to five sessions per year, in the same way physical therapists and optometrists already do.

Ryan-Newell says she's seeing a big increase in demand during the pandemic, and many people are shut out.

"We have a two-tiered system in Alberta, really, because anybody with insurance plans or who are financially resourced well enough, they can actually access a private psychologist," she said.

"But many people cannot afford that, especially in an economic downturn and with the rapid increase that we're seeing in mental health issues."

The group is composed of front-line therapists. Ryan-Newell said group members have reported an increase in serious cases.

"So in Fort McMurray right now, one of the people that we connected with said that before school that they were seeing one person a week probably that they were concerned about suicidality. Right now they're seeing up to three a day," she said.

"We talk to people in Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Red Deer, Southern Alberta, Calgary, up north and here. And there are about 60 psychologists and specialized therapists that work in our agency kind of group, and we're all seeing it."

Online counselling not the same

Ryan-Newell said the Alberta government's extra spending on mental health supports is a very good add-on, but not a solution.

"Typically it's a single session. Sometimes it's more than one, or sometimes the people call back more than once, but they do not have the ongoing consistent care that they would have by seeing a therapist or a psychologist," Ryan-Newell said.

"If you visualize, like, a medical line that you're calling in and every time you get a different person, and they're trained for triage."

Five sessions may not be enough for complex issues, Ryan-Newell said, but it's a start.

"We just need a start someplace. But family doctors, they are deluged with mental health issues. They are swamped with psychosocial mental health issues. They're not trained that way. They're doing their very best. But it's not enough," she said. 

"And over half of their calls or their sessions included psychosocial element."

Growing need

Ryan-Newell said the group started their campaign before COVID, but now the need is that much more critical.

"There's not enough resources right now for the changes we're seeing. We started our petition before the COVID, and it has just exponentially gotten worse."

NDP MLA Heather Sweet will be presenting the petition to the legislature in March.

The group hopes it will lead to a discussion with the government, and perhaps a pilot program. 

"We're not asking for every Albertan to go [to therapy]. We're saying that Albertans who don't have the funds should also be able to access quality care in a timely fashion," Ryan-Newell said. 

"So we are hoping they'll say, yes, let's do this. And … we'll start with five sessions and we'll see how our hospitals, our doctors, our systems are working. We're going to save a lot of money long term in crisis."

As of Thursday morning, the petition to provide provincially funded psychological services had over 18,000 signatures.

With files from The Homestretch

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