PhD candidate pursuing psychologist career says there are too many barriers in Sask.
Stephen Olshefsky is a sessional professor in the psychology department at the University of Regina. He has two master's degrees — one in microbiology and one in forensic psychology.
Now, Olshefsky is a PhD candidate in psychology. Yet the 46-year-old said he keeps meeting barriers on his journey to becoming a licensed psychologist in Saskatchewan.
The province is in need of mental health professionals. According to the Ministry of Health, the Saskatchewan Health Authority has more than 80 full‐time equivalent psychology positions, of which approximately 19 per cent are currently vacant.
This shortage has been at the top of Olshefsky's mind for some time.
"At the end of my master's of forensic psychology I started researching, how do I become a psychologist? I know there's a mental health crisis and I could always be useful no matter what happened," he said.
Olshefsky submitted his degree to the Saskatchewan College of Psychologists.
"I had my program evaluated," he said. "This is where I started to realize there was a lot of politics behind the situation."
Olshefsky was told his degree was missing a course foundational to Saskatchewan's psychologist requirements. His school, Southern New Hampshire University, did not provide it.
Olshefsky asked the Saskatchewan College of Psychologists if he could take the course on its own to fulfil that requirement. The college said he could not, because all the required courses have to be part of a single degree, he said.
Since he had completed his forensic psychology master's degree, the window was closed. That meant he would have to begin a whole new degree that contained the missing foundational course.
After being turned down by the Saskatchewan College of Psychologists, Olshefsky applied to the Alberta College of Psychologists with his master's of forensic psychology. Unlike Saskatchewan, Alberta would allow him to take the missing course on its own, but he would only be allowed to work in Alberta — not Saskatchewan as he wants — until he became fully registered.
"Then I can apply for reciprocity, and then I'd have still go through the Saskatchewan College reciprocity process. So, [there's an] oral interview and you potentially do another supervised practicum."
Olshefsky has put down roots in Regina. He and his husband have a mortgage there, and his husband has a good job.
"The legislation across Canada is very, very confusing, very hard, very difficult. My psychologist I see has acknowledged that I actually have more education than he does, which is weird."
To me that's a terrible waste of a passionate, educated man. - Rebecca Rackow, Canadian Mental Health Association Saskatchewan division
Not one to give up, Olshefsky applied for a new master's degree at the University of Regina, but despite having been a teacher in the psychology department, he was not accepted into the program.
He decided to look at schools in the U.S.
Olshefsky was born there, and served in the United States Air Force.
"As a veteran, it was cheaper, easier and they gave me a pretty good discount."
Olshefsky entered the online doctorate of psychology program at California Southern University. Now a PhD candidate, he needs to land an internship.
But he can't.
"I knew there were some kind of hurdles I would have to jump through, but I didn't know that the hurdles were going to be so high. Like finding an internship. Nobody wants to take on an intern," he said.
Olshefsky said those pursuing psychology degrees through Saskatchewan schools can enter the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC) program, which connects them with internships. But Olshefsky doesn't have access to APPIC because his university is not registered with that program.
"It's a high-demand field. I'm willing to do an unpaid 1,500-hour internship to practise underneath the licensed psychologist. Once I graduate, I'll write my dissertation and I'll do a 1,500-hour postdoctoral internship underneath the supervised psychologist," he said.
That's a total of 3,000 hours of interning that Olshefsy needs to do. Then he has to apply for registration as a full psychologist in Saskatchewan.
He said he has reached out to many psychologists for an internship, with no luck.
"I can't get into the internship phase because everything's locked out for me."
Without practical experience, Olshefsky cannot get letters of reference. Without letters of reference he cannot reapply to the college.
I want to help and I have the potential to help, I just don't have the pathway. - Stephen Olshefsky
'A terrible waste'
Rebecca Rackow, director of advocacy, research and public policy development at the Canadian Mental Health Association Saskatchewan division, said the organization is hearing a lot about wait-lists and people's inability to get mental health services.
"We're finding it difficult to get people lined up with psychologists who can do diagnoses, which a master's level or doctoral level psychologist could do," she said.
Rackow said Saskatchewan needs more people in that field so residents can get the help they need, because there are too few ways to get mental health-related diagnoses.
She said she understands the need to ensure that people are qualified to do the job of a psychologist, "but when you see very strict gate-keeping, we see that kind of action just creates more barriers to timely service, stuff that people need in order to get medicated, or supplemental money flow in times of inflation rates rising."
Rackow said the mental health association hears about these issues regularly. She said people are very frustrated with Saskatchewan's health-care system, and tight barriers to psychologist accreditation are not helping.
"That's a terrible disservice to Saskatchewan."
Rackow wants to see less red tape for people like Olshefsky looking to enter the mental health field.
"To me that's a terrible waste of a passionate, educated man."
Passion for mental health
When Olshefsky lived in Montana, he had a mental health councillor who he said changed his life. Olshefsky, a gay man, was released from active military duty under the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy of the era.
"I was supposed to obtain a dishonourable discharge because I told. But my psychologist at the time prevented that by using my anxiety as his diagnostic criteria and medical referral for discharge of active duty," Olshefsky said.
"Without that psychologist being on my side, and knowing the impact of having my sexuality plastered on my service record, I would never have received my G.I. bill or any veteran benefits."
Today, Olshefsky and his husband have their Canadian citizenships. Olshefsky wants to provide help to people who struggle, just like his psychologist did for him.
"I was in a very dark place at times, and he kind of helped me out and kind of put me on a path. He became my hero, essentially. So mental health has been a very important part of my life, has changed my life," said Olshefsky.
"I want to help and I have the potential to help, I just don't have the pathway."
College of Psychologists, province respond
The Saskatchewan College of Psychologists told CBC News in a letter that it cannot discuss any specific case or applicant for privacy reasons.
"We wish to advise the public that the Saskatchewan College of Psychologists is very much aware of the psychological service needs of the people of Saskatchewan and will continue to do everything within its powers to bring qualified psychological service providers forward to meet their needs," the college said.
CBC News asked the college if there could be another route to psychology internships for people like Olshefsky, who have been or are being educated by schools from outside the province, but it did not give an answer.
I knew there were some kind of hurdles I would have to jump through, but I didn't know that the hurdles were going to be so high. - Stephen Olshefsky
The Saskatchewan Ministry of Health told CBC News in an emailed statement that it acknowledges the need for mental health professionals in the province, but didn't address cases like Olshefsky's.
"The Ministry of Health and the SHA are aware of challenges with recruiting psychologists. This is similar to other jurisdictions across Canada, which are also facing challenges with recruiting psychologists," it said.
The province said it's committed to improving mental health and addictions services in communities across the province, citing $470 million for mental health and addictions services in the latest budget.