More accessible information about mental health and mental health services

May 4, 2017

It’s not always easy for people with mental illness and those who care for them to access mental health information and services.

We need to lobby for the breakdown of silos so that information and services that are separate and uncoordinated can become integrated. Expanding services can be done more effectively if those services are coordinated across departments.

Often, people come into contact with mental health care in a crisis. Under these conditions, it can be hard to gather the information people need to access care and to understand their options. Better planning and coordination can also mean greater accessibility for people who need mental health services.

Better EI benefits for people with mental illness and caregivers

Workers experiencing mental illness have access to up to 15 weeks of benefits under Employment Insurance. But decades of government policies that cut back on coverage means that most workers are not covered by EI. 

For those who are, there are significant barriers to accessing sick benefits for mental illness. Your income has to have dropped by 40 percent to even be considered. And once you are on leave, you have to file reports every two weeks—something that may be difficult for people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

In the 2017 budget, the federal government introduced a new 15-week benefit for caregivers. Even so, compassionate care remains inadequate. While thousands of Canadians care for family members and loved ones, EI compassionate care provisions have been very restrictive. This means that many companions or caregivers will end up taking unpaid leave—or worse, losing or leaving their jobs. This leads to more instability, which also has a negative effect on mental health.

Mental illness is also unique among disabilities because it can often be episodic. People with psychotic disorders can go years, or even decades, between episodes. Those with depression can cycle through long periods of good mental health and periods of depression. There may or may not be a pattern to these cycles.

It may be that we need specific EI sick benefits and compassionate care programs geared to mental illness. In order to support people with mental health challenges so that they can take the time they need to recover and return to work healthy, we must lobby for changes that recognize the unique nature of these conditions.

Better disability benefits and social assistance rates

Because of the inadequacy of mental health care and effective social and workplace supports, provincial disability support programs and social assistance have become the main source of income for many people with mental illnesses. This could be because they don’t have access to sick or long term disability leave through their work, don’t qualify for EI sick leave coverage, or have had their applications for CPP disability rejected.

Unfortunately, benefit rates are extremely low – and in some cases have not risen in years – and the systems administering these programs can be revamped to treat recipients with more dignity and compassion.

There is also a process called “the welfarization of disability.” What this means is that people go through the various form of support available to them—but none of these programs provide funding for the transitional periods between programs. So people wind up using up their savings and assets, and eventually cycle into social assistance.

Provincial and territorial disability benefits and social assistance programs also need to change to recognize the episodic nature of mental illness. A person with a mental illness may be able to take on part-time work, but still require support. The system needs to recognize that, and to respond more quickly to provide benefits for people going through cycles of illness and wellness.

Overhaul CPP disability benefits so they are more available to people with mental illness

The Canada Pension Plan offers disability benefits that are available to people with mental illness. To qualify, a disability must be “severe” and “prolonged”, with the person applying being unable to return to work. People with mental disorders account for just under a third of all CPP disability recipients. The criteria is focused primarily on physical limitations, not psychological ones. Community mental health organizations support a large percentage of those with mental illness who have their applications rejected for CPP disability benefits. And applications take at least four months to process. For someone with a severe and prolonged disability, this is a long time to wait.

As with disability benefits or social assistance, CPP disability does not do a good job of taking the episodic nature of many mental illnesses into account. Someone living with mental illness may be classified as having a permanent disability—but may go through periods when they are capable of working. The system needs to be more flexible and pay higher amounts. Stress and insecurity can both affect mental illness—and the program creates both with its low maximum payments.