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N.S. social workers call out government's plan to offer one free therapy session

HALIFAX — The Nova Scotia government's offer for a free, one-hour counselling session for residents is not enough, say the province’s college of social workers and the official Opposition.
Nova Scotia's provincial flag flies on a flagpole in Ottawa on July 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

HALIFAX — The Nova Scotia government's offer for a free, one-hour counselling session for residents is not enough, say the province’s college of social workers and the official Opposition.

N Siritsky, a consultant with the college of social workers, said, "the majority of people who need free mental health care have complex needs that require more than one session."

“A practitioner never knows if the presenting issue that’s drawing a person to call for help is the only issue or not," Siritsky, who uses they/them pronouns, said in an interview Monday.

"So there has to be some kind of assessment, and that usually takes at least one to three sessions."

Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservative government said last week that it had contracted Telus Health to offer residents a free, single session of individual, couples or family counselling that can be conducted by phone, online or in person in Halifax, Sydney, Kentville and New Glasgow. The program is budgeted to cost $2.3 million per year. 

Brian Comer, the minister responsible for mental health and addictions and who worked as a mental health nurse prior to his election, said in an interview Monday that the recently announced program is meant to complement the province’s existing health-care options and the virtual mental health tools available through the department’s website.

The minister said that while this service is not meant for those who need ongoing counselling, there is nothing stopping residents from accessing the service on more than one occasion — they just likely won't get the same counsellor.

A mental health department spokesperson said that for example, someone who accesses a single counselling session to get support while going through job loss can at a later date book a second one-hour appointment for relationship problems.

“This won’t be the optimal treatment for every Nova Scotian, but I do think it will certainly help a lot of people,” Comer said. 

He said the counselling will be a new access point for people to receive mental health care and that it will offer a way for them to learn about and “develop coping skills and resiliency skills.”

Judith Laposa, a psychologist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and professor at the University of Toronto, said a single-session therapy appointment is not likely to meet the needs of most people who would typically access counselling. 

“A full course of treatment for an anxiety disorder is usually 12 sessions, and a full course typically for depression is 16 to 20 sessions,” Laposa said in an interview Monday. 

“There may be some benefit to meeting with someone once, but would we expect it to have a comparable outcome to a full course of treatment? No.”

The Nova Scotia Liberals said in a statement Monday that the party is concerned by the fact that the program doesn’t offer continuity of care, and the party’s health critic, Rafah DiCostanzo, called it an expensive "Band-Aid fix."

Siritsky said another major concern with the program is that the province decided to invest in mental health care through Telus instead of through one of the many existing Nova Scotia-based non-profits that work in mental health. They said that the investment would have a much bigger impact if it were directed to groups that already work on increasing access to mental health care, like the Halifax-based North End Community Health Centre.

“An investment in a (local non-profit) organization would truly transform mental health care in a way that would be sustainable, as opposed to investing in Telus Health, which has no accountability back to the public,” Siritsky said. 

Siritsky said they’re also concerned that the province’s choice of partnering with Telus is an indication that Nova Scotia is pushing toward privatization for some health-care services, adding that the project seems like an advertisement for Telus Health’s various services, some of which come with out-of-pocket costs.

“We’re especially concerned about Telus Health being the organization chosen as opposed to the many, wonderful, local non-profits. Is this the normalization of for-profit industry’s expansion into health care?”

When asked if this program is a sign of the province embracing privatization of health care, Comer said, “to expect different outcomes, based on what I’ve seen as a front-line health-care provider, is that we’re going to have to do things differently.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2023.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press