One in six Canadians believe they needed mental health care in the past year, yet a third of them did not get adequate help, according to a Statistics Canada report.
The report, released Wednesday, was the first of its kind and one that mental health experts say sheds light on the gap between supply and demand for services.
Its findings were based on data culled from the agency's 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, which polled more than 25,000 people over the age of 15.
The agency's last mental health poll was in 2002. The survey at that time, however, measured only the prevalence of select mental health disorders and not individuals' perceptions of whether they needed help.
Paul Kurdyak, a clinical psychiatrist and director of health systems research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said the findings offered a fresh perspective.
"The perception of needing help is something that needs to be given some importance," Dr. Kurdyak said. "People don't seek help based on whether they meet some criteria [for a mental disorder]; they seek help based on whether they think they need it. That is a relevant shift."
One in six respondents, or 17 per cent, perceived themselves as requiring mental health care – defined as counselling, medication and more information about their condition – within the past year, but only two thirds considered their needs met.
Counselling was the least likely to be satisfied. One in five people reported getting no help, while another 16 per cent said their needs were partly met.
Respondents overwhelmingly cited "personal circumstances" as the biggest barrier to getting help. Those circumstances included: "job interfered," "haven't gotten around to it yet" and "afraid of what others would think." One in five cited navigating the health care system as the biggest obstacle. Psychological services, for instance, are typically not covered under provincial health plans.
The findings do not suggest that one in six Canadians suffer from mental illness, but rather that this proportion of the population felt it needed help in addressing one or more mental health concerns.
Indeed, the survey revealed that one in 10 reported symptoms of a mental disorder in the last year. Mental disorder was defined as depression, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder as well as dependence on drugs or alcohol.
"It's possible that people perceive certain symptoms but those symptoms are not indicative that they have a mental disorder," Leanne Findlay, a health analyst at Statistics Canada and co-author of the report. "So, a person may perceive a symptom of depression, say, and perceive the need for help, but they don't meet the clinical definition of having depression."
Beyond mental disorders, high anxiety and chronic physical conditions contribute to the perception that one needs mental health care, according to the report.
Camille Quenneville, chief executive of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, said the report reinforced what she called the "troubling" level of unmet needs.
At the same time, she suggested it failed to capture the breadth of mental illness in Canada, observing that aboriginals living on reservations, full-time military personnel and institutionalized people were not surveyed.
The aboriginal and Canadian Forces populations are surveyed separately, according to Statistics Canada.
"What I don't want is for people to walk away from this thinking [the prevalence of mental health problems is] not that bad, when we would suggest it's very significant," Ms. Quenneville said.
A spokeswoman for the Mental Health Commission of Canada declined to make anyone available for an interview, saying the commission would need a couple of days to review the findings.
The commission released a prepared statement attributed to its president, Louise Bradley, that stated in part that the data would inform the commission's efforts to improve mental health in Canada.