The Yukon government is facing criticism after budget constraints have reduced free counselling services for transgender, two-spirit and non-binary people and their loved ones.
"I'm hearing some really hard stories of people who are really struggling, in danger [and] pretty desperate for help," said Emily Tredger, NDP MLA for Whitehorse Centre.
All Genders Yukon Society can now only offer clients one hour of free counselling services a month, the services were at one time offered for two and a half hours a month.
In the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday, NDP Leader Kate White said one-time COVID-19 funding for All Genders has evaporated, but the demand for their free gender-inclusive mental health services keeps growing.
During COVID-19, the society got a $111,000 boost in pandemic funding and $86,000 from the Red Cross, which allowed it to provide two and half hours of paid counselling per month per client.
In 2021, with a smaller budget, they dropped down to one hour and 22 minutes and by April 2022, to just one hour per month per client.
Health Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee told MLAs that the budget for All Genders has increased by $55,000 compared to their pre-pandemic funding.
But critics like Tredger said clients have flocked to the service since it started three years ago, and it serves approximately 100 people per year.
"Having what was once a really reliable source of help cut back is … brutal," Tredger said.
Safe access not guaranteed
Tredger said the budget allocation is "not enough for a community that has a high risk of suicide, suicide attempts and all kinds of mental heath impacts because of the discrimination they face."
All Genders contracts out mental health counselling services to a list of 11 specialized providers, and if a person wants support to pay for a therapist they already see, All Genders draws up agreements so a person can access care quickly and affordably.
The territory offers counselling services available to everyone, but Tredger said finding a gender-inclusive counselor through the territorial government is a gamble.
"It's not always safe to access just any psychologist or mental health professional, there's a lot of discrimination within the system so it's really important that people have a choice about who they access," she said.
'Concerning' impact on clientele
Jeremy Baumbach, a Whitehorse-based registered clinical psychologist, said a reduction to one hour per month is a hardship, as most of his clients are teenagers who depend financially on their parents.
Baumbach's clients and their families are now paying out of pocket to make sure their youth have continued access, but he worries not all clients of All Genders have this support to fall back on.
"It would be terrible for a young person who doesn't have any kind of family support who is entirely reliant on All Genders funding in order to see someone," he said.
"It's horrible to imagine them going from two hours a month — which is, for some kids, not adequate — to go to one hour a month."
Many youth tell Baumbach that weekly sessions are more helpful, and going down to fewer sessions can be destabilizing.
For some this is manageable, but for those with more significant mental health issues, this is concerning, - Angela Neufeld, registered psychologist.
One session monthly is "limiting" for most people seeking therapy, and for youth who are exploring feelings around gender and making "life-changing" decisions, one hour is not sufficient especially if it's the only support they have.
He said clients also deserve to choose their therapist, based on whether they are a right fit and what their unique experience and training can offer.
Some clients also prefer private therapy due to a perception that it provides higher confidentiality in a small town, said Baumbach.
Problematic for low-income, unemployed clients
Registered psychologist Angela Neufeld has already noticed clients who access All Genders are cutting their appointments down to one per month.
Neufeld finds the overall funding reduction "problematic" because many transgender, non-binary and gender fluid individuals struggle with personal and mental health challenges. Some people who are low-income or unemployed will find therapy out of reach.
"For some this is manageable, but for those with more significant mental health issues, this is concerning," said Neufeld.
Yukon government is organizing World Professional Association for Transgender Health training for their counselors this June, something Neufeld hopes will increase public access to free, transgender-informed services.
McPhee, the territorial health minister, said the federal government added $100 million to its mental wellness service budget, and that the Yukon government would reach out to Canada.
CBC News requested information from the health department and minister but did not immediately receive a response.
Tredger, the NDP MLA, said that while she hopes there is money in the federal budget, the Yukon government needs to take responsibility for funding gender-inclusive mental health services.