Non-profit suspends waiting list for mental health therapy due to high demand

Crystal Mews lost her spot on the waiting list for counselling services at the Jacob Puddister Memorial Foundation last month, after the foundation decided to temporarily close the list due to an overwhelming number of applicants.

Jacob Puddister Memorial Foundation in St. John's overwhelmed with requests for free counselling

Crystal Mews was on the waitlist for counselling services at the Jacob Puddister Memorial Foundation. For Mews, the closure of the wait-list meant a disruption to her therapy and was 'very disappointing.' (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

No longer being on a waiting list is usually good news, but for Crystal Mews it means not having any idea when she'll see her therapist next.

After two rounds of therapy, Mews wanted to get back onto the waiting list for counselling with the Jacob Puddister Memorial Foundation in St. John's — but before she could, the list was temporarily closed due to high demand.

Mews says she understands the decision, but called it '"really disheartening."

"Especially if something you're kind of working through has anything to do with abandonment in itself, it does kind of feel really, really disappointing," said Mews.

In a statement on March 10, the foundation said there have been an average of four counselling requests per day in the past few months, causing the number of people on the waiting list to climb to 200.

That number was too much to handle in a timely manner for the non-profit organization, which offers free rounds of counselling, at 10 sessions each, to people ages 12 to 35.

Those who are on the list already will keep their spot, but the foundation isn't adding anyone else for now. 

"We do not want anyone to feel like they are on an impossibly long waiting list with no idea of when they will be seen by a therapist," the statement reads.

"Please consider reaching out to your MHA to discuss the need for additional mental health supports and funding directed toward community mental health."

Kristi Allan, who advocates for better long-term mental health care in Newfoundland and Labrador, said she was devastated by the news.

By catering to adolescents' long-term mental health needs, the foundation closes an important gap in the provincial system, she says.

"People don't understand that one-time services aren't enough," said Allan.

"The first session is spent working sometimes through very traumatic events.… For me, it took me months to be OK opening up to my therapist."

Continuity of care

Allan says the suspension of a non-profit organization's waiting list indicates how many people need long-term help but can't access it through public health.

Mews agreed that accessing public services was "more of a struggle."

She has been living with depression and anxiety since she was about 15 and had tried different avenues to receive care, such as the Janeway Children's Hospital and counselling with Eastern Health, before she was pointed to the foundation about a year ago.

"I had been going through a tough time," said Mews.

"Within a few days they responded and said, 'You'll be on the wait-list. It'll take about six to eight weeks to get in.' And within about six weeks I had my first session with my therapist."

After her first round of therapy, she successfully applied for a second, resulting in 20 sessions with the same therapist.

The bond they've created has benefited her therapy, says Mews.

This continuity of care is what the public system is lacking, and so are short wait times, says Allan.

"It's a really big deal because if you know that you have to wait to get help, you lose that resolve. And quite frankly, when it comes to mental illnesses, you don't have time. You get sicker. Or worse, you can die," said Allan.

A woman wearing a black turtleneck and a brown jacket stands with a small harbour in the backdrop
Kristi Allan, who advocates for better access to long-term mental health services in Newfoundland and Labrador, says the Jacob Puddister Memorial Foundation closes an important gap in the system, so she was 'devastated' to hear it suspended its wait-list. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

In a survey the provincial Health Department conducted in 2020, she said, 65 per cent of 1,000 respondents indicated wait times were a challenge.

Allan also criticized the fact that wait times for outpatient child and adult psychiatry in the Eastern Health region went up about 10 per cent between 2019 and 2021.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Eastern Health said wait times for both adolescent and adult psychiatric services in the metro region "have been steadily improving" since spring of 2020.

According to the health authority, urgent referrals for psychiatric services are scheduled within 30 days of receipt of the referral, and wait times for non-urgent referrals range from one to 10 months.

For psychological services, wait times range from three weeks to 19 months.

Mews says wait times to access Eastern Health mental-health services were one of the biggest obstacles for her.

"It was like six months or something before I actually got in to speak to somebody," said Mews.

"In that time, the thing that you applied for could be in the background and something new has come up. So it is important to shorten those wait times."

'A terrible thing to accept'

Cindy Hall of Mount Pearl has been waiting four months to see an Eastern Health psychiatrist.

She was put on a waiting list after being sent to the Waterford Hospital emergency room by her family doctor in December, when she was in acute distress.

"He figured if he got me to voluntarily go down to speak to someone, I'd probably get on the wait list," said Hall.

Cindy Hall, who has been on a wait-list for an Eastern Health psychiatrist for four months, says people have accepted being on a waiting list to access mental health care as the norm in the province. (Submitted by Cindy Hall)

At the end of January, she received a letter that prompted her to confirm her waiting list spot within two weeks or else she would be removed — something she fears might lead to some people losing their spot.

"I know someone close to me who has been on the wait list since 2018 and just assumes they've been waiting and never did get a letter. So I don't know if it just didn't arrive in the mail or if it was lost," said Hall.

Hall says more staff is needed to provide faster access to mental health care for people and to shorten the waiting lists she believes have become the norm in the province.

"I think people just have accepted that they're going to be on a wait [list]. I think that's a terrible thing to accept," said Hall.

Mews has accepted that she has to wait — for now.

"Starting with a new therapist, I mean, you basically have to start from scratch," said Mews.

"I would rather continue with the therapist that I've grown to feel comfortable with. So I'm just going to wait it out."

If you or someone you know needs mental health support, you can call the 24-hour Wellness Together Phone Counselling Hotline at 1-866-585-0445 or the 24-hour Mental Health Crisis Line at 1-888-737-4668.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Henrike Wilhelm


Henrike Wilhelm is a journalist working with CBC's bureau in St. John's.