Perceived need for mental health care in Canada: Results from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey–Mental Health

by Adam Sunderland and Leanne C. Findlay

Many Canadians experience a need for mental health care (MHC), but not all of those needs are met.Note1,2 In fact, the presence of mental illness has repeatedly been associated with an MHC need,Note1,3 despite evidence-based practices suggesting that mental illness can be successfully treated.Note4-7 Rates of unmet needs were higher among people with the criteria for mental illness,Note8 especially those with depression.Note9 This is relevant considering that, in 2012, an estimated 10% of Canadians experienced a mental disorder (depression, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or alcohol, cannabis or substance abuse or dependence) in the past year.Note10

Beyond mental disorders, other risk factors may affect individuals’ needs for MHC and/or the likelihood of those needs being met. Higher levels of distress, independent of a diagnosed mental illness, have been related to MHC needs and service use.Note1,3,Note11 As well, people with chronic physical conditions are more likely to report MHC needs,Note12 in particular unmet needs,Note2 compared with people who do not have such conditions.

Many studies of needs for MHC have been limited by a focus on perceived unmet needs,Note8,Note13,14 not the degree to which needs are met or unmet.Note1,2,Note8,9 For example, the concept of “partially met” need applies to individuals who have received some MHC but still perceive a need for more.  Another limitation of earlier analyses is that researchers have usually examined unmet MHC needs overall, rather than specific types.Note2,Note8,9,Note15

Based on data from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey–Mental Health (CCHS-MH), this article describes the prevalence of four types of perceived MHC needs (information, medication, counselling, and other) and the degree to which they are met in relation to risk factors for MHC needs, specifically, mental disorders, distress, or chronic physical health condition(s). Possible barriers to receiving MHC are also explored.


Data source

The cross-sectional 2012 CCHS-MH provides national estimates of major mental disorders and the provision of MHC services. The survey sample consisted of the household population aged 15 or older in the 10 provinces. Excluded from the sample were persons living on reserves and other Aboriginal settlements, full-time members of the Canadian Forces, and the institutionalized population. The response rate was 68.9%, yielding a sample of 25,113 that represented 28.3 million Canadians.Note16

Perceived need and need status

In the literature, needs for MHC are typically measured in terms of perceived need for assistance or treatment, rather than by the presence of a mental disorder or by the use of services.Note8,Note12,13,Note17 This is because not all persons with diagnosed mental illnesses  will perceive a need for treatment,Note1,Note18 and not all persons who  perceive that they have a need for MHC will seek care.Note2,Note14 Furthermore, MHC can be helpful to persons with subthreshold levels of mental illness,Note19-21 and may prevent the onset of severe mental illness.Note22

The CCHS-MH contained questions about four types of help for problems with emotions, mental health or the use of alcohol or drugs: 1) information about problems, treatments or services; 2) medication; 3) counselling, therapy, or help for problems with personal relationships; and 4) other mental health services. Respondents were asked which types of help they had received in the previous 12 months. For each type received, they were asked if they felt they had received enough. For each type of help not received, they were asked if they felt it was needed. Based on this information, a four-level need status variable was created for each type of MHC: 1) no need; 2) unmet (did not receive that type of help but perceived a need for it); 3) partially met (received help but perceived a need for more); and 4) met (received help and did not perceive a need for more). Dichotomous perceived need variables were also created for each type of need, representing  unmet, partially met, or met need (rather than no need). Finally, need status and a dichotomous perceived need variable for “any” need  were created by combining across all four need types. Here, “partially met” need represented a need for more of any type of help, or a met need for one type of help, but an unmet need for another type.

Correlates of perceived need for MHC

Analyses of MHC needs often employ Andersen’s Behavioural Model of Health Services Use,Note8,Note23,24 which identifies certain predisposing characteristics (related to the tendency to use health care services), enabling resources (availability of facilities and personnel, and the knowledge and ability to access them) and  needs-related factors (health status) as being associated with health care use.

Predisposing characteristics
Respondents provided information on sex, age, immigration status, and marital status. Four age groups were defined: 15 to 24; 25 to 44; 45 to 64; and 65 or older. Respondents born outside Canada without Canadian citizenship were identified as immigrants.Marital status was grouped into three categories: married or common-law; divorced, separated or widowed; and single, never married.

Enabling resources
Education, household income, employment status, and geographic location were considered to be enabling resources. Highest level of education was grouped into three categories: less than secondary graduation; secondary graduation; and at least some postsecondary education. Income was represented as the ratio of household income to the low income cut-off,Note25 and was divided into quintiles. Employment status indicated whether respondents were employed during the two weeks before the 2012 CCHS-MH interview.Residents of communities of 1,000 or more with a population density of at least 400 persons per square kilometer were classified as living in a population centre (as opposed to a rural area).

Needs-related  factors
Mental or substance disorder. The World Mental Health—Composite International Diagnostic Interview 3.0 (WMH-CIDI)Note26 is a standardized instrument for the assessment of mental disorders and conditions according to DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition)criteria, and is widely used in population surveys.Note27,28 Six mental disorders (lifetime and past year) were included in the 2012 CCHS-MH: depression; bipolar disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; alcohol abuse and dependence; cannabis abuse and dependence; and substance abuse and dependence. Diagnostic algorithms identified respondents meeting the criteria for each disorder. The present analysis considered only mental or substance disorders experienced in the past 12 months. Respondents were grouped into four mutually exclusive categories: 1) no mental or substance disorder; 2) one or more mood and/or anxiety disorders (depression, bipolar disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder); 3) one or more substance disorders (alcohol and/or cannabis and/or substance abuse or dependence); and 4) concurrent disorders (mood and/or anxiety disorder and any substance disorder). Concurrent disorders were those experienced in the same 12-month period, but not necessarily at exactly the same time.

Psychological distress. The K6 scale is a validated measure of psychological distress; values of 13 or more predict severe mental illness.Note29 Psychological distress, however, has been associated with perceived MHC need, independent of a mental health disorder.Note1,Note11 For the current study, the K6 was used as an indicator of distress, not an indicator of mental disorder. A dichotomous variable was created by establishing 4 as a cut-point; K6 levels greater than 4 represent higher distress.Note30

Number of chronic physical conditions. Physical conditions that had been diagnosed by a health professional and that had lasted or were expected to last six months or more (for example, arthritis, hypertension, diabetes) were summed; respondents were categorized as having 0, 1, 2, or 3 or more chronic conditions. Conditions considered to be mental illnesses were excluded from this measure.

Perceived barriers

For each type of unmet or partially met MHC need, respondents reported their perceived barriers to MHC. In a 2002 study,Note31 Sanmartin et al. suggested two types of barriers to health care in general: features of the health care system and personal circumstances. Results of other studiesNote8,Note15,Note32 indicate that many people prefer to manage mental health care on their own. Therefore, this analysis grouped the barrier items into three categories: 1) features of the health care system (“help not readily available,” “language problems”); 2) personal circumstances (“didn’t know how or where to get this kind of help,” “haven’t gotten around to it yet,” “job interfered,” “didn’t have confidence in the health care system or social services,” “couldn’t afford to pay,” “insurance did not cover,” “afraid of what others would think,” “other”); and 3) preferred to manage on own.


Descriptive statistics were calculated to determine the percentage of Canadians aged 15 or older who perceived MHC needs (any  and by type). Needs were explored based on the presence of risk factors for MHC: a mental or substance disorder, distress, and chronic physical conditions. Logistic regression analysis was used to examine independent associations between these risk factors and having any MHC need (versus no need). Predisposing (sex, age group, immigration status, and marital status) and enabling (education, household income, employment status, and population centre/rural) factors were included as covariates.

Among individuals who perceived an MHC need (n = 4,816), need status was identified as the percentage of unmet, partially met, and met needs. Associations between risk factors and need status were explored in multinomial logit regression analyses (any, information, medication, counselling). This technique allows for a comparison between levels of a non-ordered, multi-response dependent variable, whereby the effect of an independent variable can be observed for each level of the dependent variable. In this case, unmet and partially met needs were compared with the met needs reference category. Predisposing and enabling factors were included as covariates.

To explore why MHC needs were not fully met, descriptive analyses examined barriers to MHC among those who reported unmet or partially met needs.

All analyses were conducted using SAS 9.2. Survey sampling weights were applied so that the analyses would be representative of the Canadian population. Bootstrap weights were applied using SUDAAN 11.0 to account for the underestimation of standard errors due to the complex survey design.Note33


One in six has MHC need
In 2012, 17% of Canadians aged 15 or older reported having had a need for MHC in the previous 12 months (Table 1). Because individuals could report more than one type of need, the sum of the percentages reporting specific types of need exceeds 17%: 12% reported a need for counselling; 10% reported a need for medication; 7% reported a need for information; and 1% reported another type of need.

As expected, the prevalence of MHC needs was much higher among people with mental health conditions. Three-quarters of those with a mood or anxiety disorder reported an MHC need. And while just one-quarter with any substance disorder reported an MHC need, approximately nine out of ten with a concurrent substance disorder and a mental disorder perceived an MHC need. Regardless of the mental or substance disorder, the most commonly reported need was for counselling.

Individuals with higher levels of distress and chronic physical conditions more frequently reported having an MHC need than did people with low distress and no chronic physical conditions.

Even when predisposing (for example, age and sex) and enabling (for example, education and household income) characteristics were taken into account, the associations between MHC needs and mental disorders, distress and chronic physical conditions persisted (Table 2). Individuals in each mental or substance disorder category had significantly higher odds of perceiving an MHC need, compared with people without a mental or substance disorder. As well, people with higher distress or chronic physical conditions had elevated odds of perceiving an MHC need, compared with people with low distress or no physical conditions.

Meeting perceived MHC needs
In 2012, an estimated 600,000 Canadians reported that in the previous 12 months they had an unmet MHC need, and more than 1,000,000 had a partially met MHC need (data not shown). For people with an MHC need, the degree to which these needs were met varied with the type of need (Table 3). Needs for medication were the need most likely to be met (91%). As well, about 7 out of 10 who reported a need for information felt that it was met. Counselling needs were the least likely to be met—65% had their need met; for 16%, it was partially met; and for 20%, unmet.

Risk factors for MHC were also related to the need status of perceived MHC needs (Table 4). People with any MHC need who had a mood or anxiety disorder or concurrent disorders were more likely to have their need partially met (rather than met), compared with individuals who did not have a mental or substance disorder. However, those with a mental or substance disorder were no more likely to have an unmet versus a met need.

Individuals with higher distress were more likely than those with low distress to have both unmet and partially met (rather than met) needs (Table 4). Follow-up analysis (data not shown) explored the association between any MHC need and more detailed distress levels:  low (K6 score 0 to 4; 77% of sample); moderate (K6 score 5 to 12; 21%); and high (K6 score 13 or greater; 2%). Because of the high correlation between distress and the presence of a mental disorder (Spearmen rank r = .4), mental disorder variables were excluded from this analysis. Compared with people who had low distress, those whose distress level was moderate were more than twice as likely to have unmet or partially met (versus met) MHC needs; those with higher levels of distress were more than three times as likely to have unmet needs and seven times more likely to have partially met needs versus met needs.

By contrast, people with two or more chronic physical conditions were less likely to have an unmet (rather than met) MHC need, compared with people who did not have a chronic physical condition (Table 4).

Given that counselling was the MHC need most likely to be reported and the least likely to be met, associations between the risk factors and unmet, partially met, and met counselling needs were examined (data not shown). When the predisposing, enabling, and other needs-related factors were taken into account, individuals with a mental disorder were no more likely to have an unmet or partially met (rather than met) counselling need than were individuals without a mental disorder. However, people with higher distress had more than twice the odds of having an unmet or a partially met counselling need (rather than a met need), compared with those with low distress. People with two or more chronic physical conditions were less likely to have unmet counselling needs (rather than met) than were individuals without a chronic physical condition.

Perceived barriers to MHC
The most frequently mentioned barriers to having MHC needs met were related to personal circumstances—cited by almost three-quarters who reported any unmet or partially met need (Table 5). About four out of ten with an unmet or partially met MHC need reported that they preferred to manage the need on their own. One in five mentioned that features of the health care system presented barriers to meeting MHC needs. The distribution of barriers reported were similar across types of need.


According to the results from the 2012 CCHS-MH, more than one in six Canadians aged 15 or older experienced a need for mental health care in the previous 12 months. An estimated 600,000 had a perceived  unmet MHC need, and more than 1,000,000 had a partially met need. The most common need was for counselling.

Similar to earlier studies that found greater MHC needs among people with concurrent mental or substance disorders,Note3,Note12 the present analysis shows that a large majority of those with a mood or anxiety disorder alone or with a concurrent substance disorder perceived an MHC need, compared with about one-quarter of those with only a substance disorder.

But as was reported in a 2002 study,Note12 experiencing a mental disorder was not necessarily associated with the degree to which needs were met.  Among individuals who perceived an MHC need, those with a mood or anxiety disorder, with or without a concurrent substance disorder, were more likely to have a partially met (rather than met) MHC need. They were not, however, more likely to have an unmet need, indicating that, along with perceiving a need, they were more likely to use MHC services. This finding illustrates the importance of disentangling the degree to which MHC needs are met.

Regardless of the presence of mental disorders, higher levels of distress were associated with the degree to which perceived MHC needs were met, even when predisposing and enabling factors were accounted for. However, because the data are cross-sectional, directionality cannot be determined—people with distress may be more likely to perceive unmet needs, or people with unmet needs may be more likely to experience distress.

As in previous research,Note12 results suggest that individuals with chronic physical conditions were more likely to have a perceived MHC need, compared with people who did not have such conditions. The current study also found that their MHC needs were less likely to be unmet (rather than met). This may reflect a tendency for people with multiple chronic conditions to have more frequent contact with medical professionals,Note34 and thereby be referred for MHC.

Although this analysis suggests a link between physical and mental health, previous research helps highlight the differences in barriers to MHC and barriers to health care in general. In the current study, 19% of perceived unmet or partially met needs were attributed to features of the health care system measured in the 2012 CCHS-MH, and 73% to personal circumstance. By comparison, Sanmartin et al.Note31 found 52% of individuals reported that barriers to health care in general were a result of features of the health care system, and 69% attributed barriers to personal circumstances. Additionally, in the current study, nearly half of respondents with an unmet or partially met MHC need reported that they preferred to manage the need on their own.

Limitations and future directions
Several limitations of this analysis must be acknowledged. Mental disorders were identified by an algorithm based on responses to the CIDI, not a clinical diagnosis. Also, only certain mental disorders were included on the 2012 CCHS-MH (for instance, personality disorders were not considered). Additionally, the sample did not include the institutionalized population. Taken together, the prevalence of mental disorders and MHC needs may be underestimated.

Moreover, the focus was on perceptions of MHC needs, which excludes people who do not perceive a need, but who might benefit from MHC services. Future research based on the CCHS-MH might consider differences in perceived need status by service use.

Finally, this study does not account for some factors that may influence MHC needs—for example, whether individuals have a regular physician or insurance coverage.Note24


The strengths of this analysis include an examination of MHC needs by type (information, medication, counselling, and other), a determination of the degree to which MHC needs are met (fully, partially, or unmet), and a large, population-based sample. The results suggest that many Canadians perceive an MHC need, particularly for counselling. The presence of a mental disorder, higher distress, and chronic physical conditions were positively associated with perceiving an MHC need, many of which were unmet or only partially met. As well, higher levels of distress predicted a greater likelihood that needs would be unmet or partially met. Most perceived barriers to receiving MHC were related to personal circumstances, although almost one in five who reported barriers said they were related to features of the health care system.


The authors appreciatively acknowledge the input of Philippe Finès on the analytical approach, and Claudia Sanmartin for comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript.

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