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Fewer Canadians have disability coverage today, compared with a year ago, yet more are in need of it.

According to a recent study by RBC Insurance, 68 per cent of working Canadians have had to take time off of work because of a disability – either for themselves or a loved one – yet only half have disability coverage, down 5 per cent from last year.

Furthermore, half of working Canadians would have taken time off work for a disability but felt they couldn’t afford it, which is also 5 per cent more than last year. Of those who took time off of work as a result of a disability, 56 per cent say they had to return to work early for financial reasons, and 45 per cent felt pressed to return sooner than they wanted to.

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Maria Winslow, the senior director of life and health at RBC Insurance, says the drop in coverage is likely a result of an increase in self-employment and the rise of the gig economy. “Less people are covered through workplace benefits and a reason for that is more people are self-employed,” she said. According to Statistics Canada, the number of self-employed Canadians increased by 93,000, or 3.3 per cent, between May, 2018, and May, 2019.

When faced with the prospect of a disability leave from work of three months or longer, two-thirds of respondents to the RBC study said it would have “serious financial implications” for them and their families. At the same time, only 43 per cent have discussed plans for coping with an extended disability leave with their families.

“We worry, when someone is off of work for more than three months, how much more household debt they will take on because they don’t have their full paycheque or any paycheque to cover their basic needs,” Ms. Winslow said.

While fewer Canadians have disability coverage, nearly two thirds have required it in the past, and Ms. Winslow says that number is trending upward.

“While there’s nothing specifically pointing to it in the study, as a leading insurance carrier what I can say is we have seen an increase in the occurrence of a disability, specifically an increase around mental-health claims,” she said. “What we know is that people are getting more comfortable talking about mental health and needing to be off of work as a result of mental health [issues].”

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), one in five Canadians experience a mental illness or addiction problem each year, and half of all Canadians will have experienced a mental illness by the age of 40.

“I don’t think we’re seeing a rise in the number of people with depression or anxiety,” explained CAMH psychiatrist David Gratzer. “I think, instead, what we’re seeing is the stigma is fading, so more people are willing to talk about these things, more people are willing to seek care.”

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Dr. Gratzer says that as more Canadians seek help for mental illnesses, more are also finding relief, often inspiring friends and family to address their own mental-health needs. At the same time, however, mental-health leave is still stigmatized in many Canadian workplaces. In fact, more than 60 per cent of Canadian organizations report not having a mental-health strategy in place.

Dr. Gratzer explains that the discrepancy in coverage for mental-health-related disability coverage comes back to a long-standing misconception. “Somebody who’s been in a car accident and busted their leg, that’s real; someone who is suffering from depression is choosing not to work – it’s a moral failing,” he said, describing common misbeliefs around mental health. He adds that mental-health disorders are still not treated with the same seriousness as other illnesses. “We would never tolerate news that more people were seeking care for cancer, yet it was covered less,” he adds.

Dr. Gratzer explains that workplaces are less keen to cover mental illnesses because they have historically been considered less debilitating than physical illnesses. While the conversation has changed dramatically in recent years – with more employers, politicians, celebrities and everyday Canadians openly discussing mental-health issues – Dr. Gratzer says there’s still plenty of progress left to be made. According to CAMH, only half of Canadians who experience a major depressive episode received “potentially adequate care.”

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether we are physically sick or mentally sick,” Dr. Gratzer said. “We’re all Canadians and we deserve a chance at wellness.”

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