As of October 1st, in Canada, through its health benefits package, Starbucks has begun offering employees $5000 to cover mental health therapy costs. That’s up from the previous coverage of $400. This is significant because it’s very common for health benefits coverage to only cover a few hundred dollars for therapy which, if you’ve ever gotten therapy, only covers a couple of sessions. Or, as was my experience, it only covered enough sessions to learn that I needed to find a different therapist.

When I first sought help for my mental health, I knew nothing about mental illness and the level of insight I had into my own symptoms was, let’s say: limited. So when I went to a counsellor, I presented a very narrow set of symptoms that I wanted help with and she referred me to a psychologist that claimed to specialize in those specifics symptoms. That psychologist charged around $200 per session and I had around $500 in my university health insurance benefits to spend on therapy. So I could get two sessions on my insurance and then I’d have to begin paying on my own.

It turned out, that psychologist was terrible. Although she did emphasize during each session that she had degrees from good schools (that were only average schools). Did she think I was going to recover from mental illness by using her degrees to give myself a lobotomy via teeny tiny paper-cuts? Unfortunately, (or hilariously) she was a bad listener. Talking with her was like being in a Monty Python skit about therapy. It was like I would say, “I like oranges.” And then she would ask, “What do you think about these apples when you’re eating them?” To which I would say, “No, they weren’t apples, they were oranges.” And then she would get this look on her face like she was playing a psychoanalyst in a soap opera and she would ask, “Why do you see the apples as oranges?”

She was into talk therapy. She emphasized how we would need to talk for many sessions before we began to uncover the problems. This is a great business model for therapist, especially if the patient isn’t pick up the tab–more on this later. At the time, I was totally unaware of research on treatment for mental illness, so I didn’t know that talk therapy was also not likely to be effective for the compulsive behavioral issues with which I was struggling. So even if she had been competent at talk therapy, doing talk therapy for behavioral issues is like doing talk therapy to become a marathon runner. I needed exercises to change my behaviors.

Luckily, the money ran out so I stopped going. I went back to the counsellor that referred me, suggested she never send anybody to that psychologist again, and then the counsellor got me into a free research program on Exposure & Response Prevention therapy. I completely recovered, and the rest is history. To circle back around to Starbucks and their insurance provider, Manulife, there are some points to pull out of this experience I had that will be relevant to insurance providers and companies picking up the full cost of therapy:

  • I spent six months in that ERP research program, meeting with a therapist once per week for an hour. Had that cost $200 per session, it would have cost $4800. I am only a functioning member of society now because of that. So I’d say, that at $5000, they’ve picked a totally reasonable amount to cover effective therapy and it’s money well spent.
  • Effective therapy is important to emphasize here. Starbucks’ benefits currently apply to any type of therapy as long as the therapist or social worker is licensed. They pitch that like it’s a good thing. And choice is great. But that doesn’t necessarily mean effective therapy or effective therapists. You can easily blow $5000 on a therapist that helps you do nothing or practices a type of therapy that isn’t at all an evidence-based approach for the mental illness with which you’re struggling. Quality matters as much in therapy as it does in Frappucinos.
  • My hope is that insurance companies will quickly notice the difference between spending $5000 on an effective therapist practicing effective therapy that helps a person completely recover and giving $5000 to an ineffective therapist and then many more dollars when that person continues to struggle. Mental health professionals and colleges, take note: insurance companies will soon have data on your effectiveness.
  • As insurance companies pick up more of the costs of covering mental health therapy, expect them to have opinions on the types of therapy a professional practices, in the same way that they have opinions on what types of drugs they’ll cover.

To all of the thousands of Starbucks employees that now have access to therapy in Canada, enjoy the new skills you’re going to learn!



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