A doubling in the number of therapists at Dr. Stephanie Yamin’s clinic is one illustration of the massive demand for professional mental health services in Ottawa.
Yamin, co-founder of the Ottawa Therapy Group, said the clinic has grown from about 10 therapists to 20 therapists during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We serve clients relatively quickly at the Ottawa Therapy Group just because we have been following the growth of requests by hiring more therapists,” Yamin said, highlighting the work of the clinic’s full-time administrative staff to help people find another therapist if the clinic’s experts are booked.
“We don’t turn anyone away. If we can’t serve them, we will find them a place,” Yamin said.
Mental health professionals said they typically see a high demand this time of year and the layering of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the decision by the Ontario government to delay school openings in this month, has meant there aren’t enough therapists available to help everyone who requires immediate help.
This week brings “Blue Monday,” considered informally to be the most depressing day of the year as post-holiday credit card bills arrive and winter settles in. (Blue Monday was actually created as a vacation marketing scheme, as the Canadian Mental Health Association has pointed out.)
In Ontario this month, the Omicron variant is keeping people from socializing at restaurants and exercising at gyms as the government attempts to curb another aggressive spread of the virus.
The weather hasn’t been helping lately in Ottawa, considering the recent deep freeze and a forecasted snowstorm to start the week.
Yamin looks back to the first months of the pandemic as the “calm before the storm.”
“Starting in about May 2020, it has been an exponential increase in people requesting services,” Yamin said. “We can look at our statistics and every month has been this steep increase in requests, which means we have had to adapt as a clinic.”
That has meant seeing clients virtually, rather than in-person, but while there has been an acceptance of virtual therapy, Yamin said some people struggle with technology and others who are dealing with certain types of anxiety or trauma might be uncomfortable in virtual settings.
Plus, people are tired of screen time and craving in-person connection.
“All of a sudden, I would say since the new year, we’ve been getting calls once again asking for in-person (therapy),” Yamin said, estimating that about 30 per cent of her clients are inquiring about it.
Tim Simboli, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Ottawa branch, said the demand for mental health services grows with every month the pandemic drags on, creating a “staggering” number of requests.
“It was bad, it’s gotten worse and it’s probably still going to get worse down the road. That’s the honest truth about the whole thing,” Simboli said.
Simboli said there are some mental health services that have a three-year wait list, requiring band-aid therapy until a full assessment can be scheduled.
“Our system was never funded or large enough to meet the demand. That was before COVID hit. Like everything else, COVID has just made every problem that much worse,” Simboli said.
“People are lined up to get some sort of support and the systems have flexed fairly well, but the gap between what we can provide and what the community needs is huge. It’s just gigantic.”
Therapists interviewed for this story said people are contacting them for a variety of reasons, such as loneliness, marital problems, disappointments with school life and job dissatisfaction.
Dr. Helen Ofosu, a psychologist who provides career counselling and executive coaching, said she has been helping people evaluate their work lives during a pandemic-driven phenomenon widely coined the “Great Resignation.”
Ofosu said she’s been particularly worried for working parents trying to juggle online schooling for their kids all day and then catching up at night with the demands of their jobs.
“There’s no doubt I’ve been busier during the pandemic than I was prior,” Ofosu said. “Part of that is this re-thinking, especially the people who have options, because some people have more options than others.”
Ofosu said for many clients, they love the work but not their workplaces or colleagues. She said in a unique development caused by the pandemic, many members of equity-seeking groups, such as people who are racialized or part of a religious minority, have been re-evaluating their jobs while working from home.
“As the months have passed and they haven’t had to deal with that low-key exclusions or micro-aggressions or side-eye or whatever, they’re realizing, ‘Oh my God, it feels so good not to be dealing with that stuff,’ ” Ofosu said.
“So, some people in anticipation of a return to work have tried to find alternative employment in an organization that has a better workplace culture.”
Dr. Jane Blouin, clinical director of the Ottawa Centre for Cognitive Therapy, said she hasn’t seen this kind of demand for therapy in her 30-year career. She called it “absolutely unprecedented.”
Blouin said her clinic sees about 10-15 new client intakes every week. Therapists were able to keep up with the demand for the first leg of the pandemic, but that changed last winter.
“We ended up with 400 people on our waiting list that we couldn’t give an appointment for an assessment within three months, so those 400 people just sat there waiting for us to get back to them,” Blouin said.
School closures have had dangerous impacts to youths because they lost their bonding opportunities with peers, Blouin said. There has been a correlation between the size of the clinic’s wait list and times when the government closed schools, and “the last two weeks have been brutal,” she said.
“The big crisis has been with the adolescents,” Blouin said, explaining how CHEO was calling her clinic daily at times during the pandemic asking for therapists to see suicidal adolescents. “The suicidal urges amongst (adolescents) were unprecedented in our experience.”
The struggle to keep up with the number of clients calling for help has been stressful for the clinic.
“It’s a wonderful career. It’s really rewarding,” Blouin said.
“But when you can’t see them, boy, it’s hard. It’s really hard.”