Nobody knows why therapy helps. We have theories but no solid understanding of the mechanisms involved and we probably won't for a long time. Therapy isn't alone in this. Nobody knows, for example, why SSRIs, a commonly prescribed class of anti-depressant works either.
We do know that for certain categories of psychological problems -- some couple and family distress, mild to moderate depression or anxiety, certain personality disorders, and some psychotic disorders -- psychotherapy helps a significant portion of people and has minimal down sides (there are possible negative consequences to therapy some of which I discussed here).
These two points -- that therapy works and that we don't know why it works -- are important to emphasize because government and private insurance are increasingly involved in the practice of psychotherapy. An example; this week the Order of Psychologists of Quebec announced that it is proceeding against two people for practicing psychotherapy without a license. Here, in Quebec, since 2012 you must have a license from the Order to offer psychotherapy, which is defined as follows...
Clearly, the provincial government is taking psychotherapy more seriously. Also it is clear that it is hard for lawyers to write a good definition of a process that we don't understand very well. How far in can the government wade? So far it has been restrictive legislation. André Picard of the Globe and Mail, who writes as well as anybody in Canada about psychiatry, mental health and mental illness, has written a very good piece aimed at beginning (again) a discussion around the funding of psychotherapy through public health insurance. Currently, no provincial government funds non-MD-provided psychotherapy in the same way that it funds medical procedures. Here in Quebec, non-MDs -- psychologists, social workers, creative arts therapists sexologists etc. -- who work as psychotherapists in the public sector get paid a salary through their institution, they don't charge per procedure. They are also increasingly rare. The vast majority of out-patient psychotherapy is provided by private practitioners for whom clients pay out-of-pocket and either get reimbursed by their private insurance or not. This means that people who might greatly benefit from psychotherapy but can't afford it are unable to access it. The more seriously mentally ill a person is the more likely it is that he or she is poor, and the less likely it is that he or she has private insurance so this way of delivering non-emergency mental health care is seriously off.
I like the idea of people being able to access psychotherapy regardless of income. But I have some serious reservations about the idea of public health care funding for psychotherapy.
- Psychotherapy is one thing that can help with mental illness. There are lots of other non-medical treatments that can help the mentally ill: stable, supportive housing is a big one; case management is another. If we want to spend billions helping the mentally ill do better in the hopes that we will benefit as a society, we need to take these two as seriously as psychotherapy and medication.
- It can be a bonanza for some and create rich, entrenched interests that distort psychotherapy. Research into psychotherapy can make for very dispiriting reading. It often looks like this; I have developed Wexler's Wonder Therapy (TM). I test WWT (TM) on people with depression by giving them 8 sessions. I exclude from my study anybody who has a drinking problem, couples problems, a history of childhood trauma, depression that has been treatment resistant or anyone with a cat because these other factors would confuse the research. I begin with 15 people who meet these criteria. Six drop out. Of the remaining nine, six experience greater relief than they would if they were on a waiting list. Wexler's Wonder Therapy (TM) is 67% effective! It works on non-drinking, non-childhood trauma, non-treatment resistant, non-cat owning depressed people in only 8 sessions so it is incredibly cost effective. It becomes the treatment standard for psychotherapy for depression. I will train clinicians in WWT (TM) for a mere 1200$. With that money I prove that WWT (TM) is also effective for anxiety and couples difficulties. And so on. This is not to say that psychotherapy isn't effective. It is. But for many conditions there does not seem to be much daylight between different therapies. And people are a lot more complex in clinical settings than in research trials, which means that claims to deliver highly-effective, short-term psychotherapies are often over-hyped.
- Psychotherapy isn't medicine. These difficulties come of trying to shoehorn psychotherapy, and psychological care generally, into a medical model. Psychotherapy is connected to medicine because of its origins and because there is real overlap, but it isn't the same thing and trying to use our health-care system to pay for it means putting a square peg in a round hole.
- It seems very unlikely to happen. Quebec is in the midst of cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from its health care system and psychiatric outpatient care is being hit hard. Proposals to take on additional expenses seem likely to be DOA here and elsewhere.
I want to ensure that people who need non-emergency psychological care can get it regardless of income and at the same time maintain a practice of psychotherapy that is flexible and not overly bureaucratized. Here is a suggestion: borrow from the Americans, specifically Obamacare. Rather than expand Medicare to include non-hospital psychological treatment, require private insurance companies (which are making billions of dollars a year) to offer all Canadians 25$/year mental health insurance plans. No cherry-picking, no pre-existing condition exclusions. All plans must cover the cost of non-hospital services like psychotherapy, case management and emergency supportive housing. Require all Canadians to have a mental health insurance plan. Plans that do a good job of keeping policy holders out of hospital for a year get a portion of the cost of saved hospital psychiatric care. Incentivize non-hospital based psychological care and let groups of clinicians experiment with what gives the best results. This is probably more likely to happen than provincial governments finding a few 100-million$ a year in spare change at the back of the couch and might preserve some creativity and flexibility in psychotherapy as well as ensuring non-psychotherapeutic treatments are on the table when necessary.