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Where to Get Care – A Guide to Navigating Public and Private Mental Health Services in Canada

When you need mental health support, it can be hard to know where to turn. Your options also vary, depending on things like where you live, how much money you make, whether you have access to benefits, and what language you’re most comfortable speaking. This guide addresses key questions to help you navigate the public and private options that are available in Canada.

1.   Do I need help?

Mental health can change over time, so it’s important to recognize when it’s time to seek support. Check in with yourself. You may need help if any of the following experiences describe your situation:

  • I’m finding it difficult to function at work and in relationships.
  • My moods, thoughts, appetite, sleep patterns, or energy are changing.
  • I’m losing interest in activities that used to bring me joy.
  • I’m struggling to manage my thoughts, feelings, or behaviour.

2.   Is this an emergency?

This tip-sheet is not intended as medical advice. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 911 or visit your nearest emergency department or crisis centre.

If you need immediate support, several crisis lines are available in Canada:

3. Where do I start?

You don’t have to handle this alone. Some people find it helpful to confide in someone they trust, like a family member, close friend, or spiritual adviser. Mental health service providers offer more specialized care, which ranges based on the severity of the issue and may offer more objectivity and anonymity than someone you know. Certain services need a doctor’s referral, while some are self-directed and available online. Others are public (funded by governments), and some are covered by (employer-based) private benefit programs or can be purchased directly.

Public Services

Types of public mental health services:

  • Primary care. Family doctors and nurse practitioners are often the first point of contact. They can assess mental health conditions, prescribe medication, and refer patients to a psychiatrist or other specialist.
  • Walk-in clinics. Many people in Canada do not have a family doctor. Doctors at walk-in clinics can provide referrals.
  • Community services. Community mental health agencies provide services at no charge, though there may be waiting lists. Other community health and social service agencies may provide some mental health services and information about how to connect with a mental health provider.
  • Provincial and territorial government services. Some provinces and territories have their own public programs to support mental health and substance use health. You can find them on the provincial and territorial websites listed here.
  • Mental health navigation programs. Some municipalities offer programs to help individuals navigate and connect with mental health services in a province or territory. You can find more information on your local public health unit website.
  • Services for specific populations. Groups like veterans, First Nations and Inuit, refugees, students (among others) may have access to additional mental health services. For example, many colleges and universities have programs to provide eligible students with a set number of counselling sessions.

What public resources are available anytime?

  • Self-directed courses and apps. Virtual, evidence-based courses and apps like those offered through CMHA’s BounceBack can teach you important skills to improve your mental health. In some cases, these self-directed courses and apps may be enough. They can also complement other supports or be useful while you wait for other services. Just be sure to apply a critical lens when choosing a self-directed option.
  • 211. A way for you to link to information on other health and social services in communities across Canada. It’s free and confidential and can be accessed 24-7 in more than 150 languages, online and by phone, chat, text.
Private Services

Types of private benefit programs and mental health services:

  • Extended health benefits. EHBs are available to about two-thirds of Canadians through their employers or direct purchase. This coverage allows you to choose your own mental health provider and submit receipts for reimbursement through your benefits provider. Before selecting a care provider, be sure to check the limitations of your coverage. For example, some EHBs cover services from a registered psychologist but not a psychotherapist, and coverage amounts vary.
  • Employee assistance programs. Many Canadian employers offer EAPs or Employee and Family Assistance Programs to eligible staff and their dependents. These programs include a set number of free, confidential counselling sessions with a mental health professional. Some also include 24-7 crisis support, psychological assessments, and referral services.
  • Supplementary programs. Some employers offer additional programs to help supplement their EAPs and EHBs. These might include access to private e-mental health programs or other services that emphasize wellness through courses or activities. If you’re unsure what your employer offers, contact an employee representative.

How do I make the most of limited coverage?

  • Even the most generous employee benefit packages have limited coverage. An EAP is typically limited by number of sessions, while EHBs are often limited by a dollar amount. In either case, it’s important to talk with your mental health care provider upfront. Discuss your limitations and work out a plan to achieve specific goals within those parameters.

What if I don’t feel better when my coverage runs out?

  • If you’re approaching the end of your coverage and have concerns about your progress, ask your provider for suggestions. In addition to tools and practical resources, they may be able to refer or direct you to additional programs. Some organizations and individual providers offer a sliding scale for those whose coverage is maxed out, meaning that the rate is subsidized to fit your circumstances.
  • If your coverage runs out and you can’t pay out of pocket (average costs range from $125 to $225 for a single appointment with a mental health professional), consult the public options listed above. If you were placed on a wait-list for a publicly funded mental health service, for example, you may be closer to the top of the list by the time your private coverage has lapsed. Fortunately, most employer benefits reset annually, so your entitlement starts in full with each new fiscal or calendar year.

4. Who’s who?

  • Primary care provider: A licensed family doctor or nurse practitioner who provides routine mental health care, screening, assessment, prescribing and medication monitoring, brief counselling, and referrals.
  • Psychiatrist: A licensed medical doctor who can identify, diagnose, and treat the most severe and complex mental health problems and prescribe medication. Psychiatrists also provide consultation support to other mental health service providers.
  • Psychologist: A licensed mental health professional with a master’s and/or doctorate in psychology and training in psychological testing, including assessment and diagnosis. Psychologists help people to overcome or manage their problems using a variety of treatments or psychotherapies such as talk therapy.
  • Social worker: A regulated professional who works to support clients’ social, mental, and physical well-being. They often provide counselling, therapy, and assist with navigating government services, benefits, and community resources to help clients overcome social and psychological obstacles.
  • Psychotherapist/counselling therapist: A professional trained to address wellness, relationships, personal growth, and mental illness or distress through a relational process. They are currently regulated in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.
  • Occupational therapist: A licensed professional who can help people living with mental illness return to routines and functions that allow them to participate in meaningful activities. Some also provide individual and group therapy.
  • Peer supporter: A person trained to provide emotional and practical support to someone who shares a common experience, such as a mental health challenge or illness. Peer supporters may hold certificates.
  • Registered psychiatric nurse: A professional who focuses on psychosocial, mental, or emotional health, both independently and in collaboration with other health-care team members. They are currently regulated in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon.

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