While Ottawa has boosted its spending on mental health services, Canada risks falling behind on the file unless the federal government opts for a better approach, mental health advocates say.

The Liberals made an election campaign promise in 2021 to launch a Canada Mental Health Transfer that would have sent a total of $4.5 billion to provinces and territories over five years.

But mental health organizations say they have seen little of that promised money — despite a rise in the number of reported mood disorders since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ottawa appears to have abandoned the pledge. The federal government is instead rolling a boost in mental health funding into health-care funding agreements it’s making with the provinces and territories.

When asked about the promise, Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of mental health and addictions, pointed to $25 billion in new spending from Ottawa on the Canada Health Transfer.

Mental health is one of four “shared priorities” identified by the federal government in its health care funding deals with the provinces and territories — so not all of that $25 billion will go to mental health services and supports.

“That $25 billion now will ensure better mental health in primary care teams, and the attachment of Canadians to a primary care team with additional mental health supports,” Bennett told a news conference last week.

Bennett said the money also will help governments get better data on wait times and which mental health needs aren’t being addressed, among other things.

Bennett, who is the first federal minister of mental health in Canada’s history, has been rolling out funding announcements lately for everything from increased mental health supports on university campuses to efforts to improve mental health among teachers and in Black communities.

But Mary Bartram, policy director at the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said it’s not enough — especially given the negative mental health effects of the pandemic.

“There’s no way that increased investment has caught up with the increased level of need,” Bartram told CBC News.

“So there’s still a very important role for additional investment in improving access to mental health care, particularly for those who’ve been hardest-hit by the mental health impacts of the pandemic.”

Statistics Canada data shows that 11.7 per cent of Canadians over the age of 12 outside the territories reported fair or poor mental health in 2021 — a two per cent increase over 2020. Approximately 3.1 million respondents in 2021 reported having a mood disorder, up from 2.9 million in 2020.

The statistics agency is conducting a new survey to assess the impacts of COVID-19 on Canadians’ mental health.

Toronto-based clinical psychologist Dr. Taslim Alani-Verjee has seen the negative impact of COVID-19 on mental health first-hand. She estimates her practice at the Silm Centre for Mental Health has seen a three-fold increase in referrals since the start of the pandemic.

“They come in waves. They often come in response to what’s going on in the world,” she said.

“We’re also see a lot more organizations that are coming to us to ask us to offer services to their staff.”

Silm doesn’t have a wait list and has hired staff to meet the increased demand. Alani-Verjee said she hasn’t seen the federal government’s pledges on mental health trickle down to her practice.

But she’s hoping things will improve.

“We can see, as a culture in Canada, we are pushing more and more for this. We’re talking about it more and I think there will be more expectations on the government to actually do something,” she said.

Sarah Kennell, the national director of public policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), said the government’s failure to introduce a dedicated mental health transfer left a gap in the health-care system.

“In a country that really values a universal, publicly funded system, we can no longer continue to view mental health as not on par with physical health,” she said.

“Mental health continues to be seen as outside the formal health-care system. So when you break your leg, you go the hospital, you get a cast, and you get referrals to do follow-up, et cetera. It’s just not the same when you have a mental health concern.”

Kennell said CMHA is hoping the federal government will revive the mental health transfer in its upcoming budget. It’s a hope Bartram shares.

“There’s no health without mental health, and we really need dedicated funding to be able to achieve that,” Bartram said.

Ottawa has made some moves on mental health

The Trudeau government has invested in a Wellness Together Canada online portal for mental health in response to the negative mental health effects of the pandemic.

It also has poured money into Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program (SUAP) to address drug abuse and other substance use issues.

Kennell gives the government high marks for those programs. She also applauds provincial governments’ increased focus on mental health — in particular British Columbia’s recent $1 billion pledge for mental health and addictions support and Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston’s campaign pledge for universal financial coverage of mental health services.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Kennell said.

Wounded Warriors Canada executive director Scott Maxwell agrees. While his organization — a national mental health service for military veterans and emergency responders — is seeing demand at an all-time high, he said it represents a positive cultural change.

“It’s still a good sign to see more and more people feeling comfortable and willing to reach out to access the mental health supports that they need,” he said.