The New Democrats are promising to create a universal mental health benefits program for all Ontarians if the party is elected June 2, the Star has learned.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who will unveil the ambitious $1.15 billion a year plan on Sunday, says OHIP would cover the cost of services that Ontario residents now pay for out of pocket or with employee benefits.

“We will start by expanding access to counselling and therapy services across the province. As a first step, we will ensure public access to psychotherapy for everyone,” Horwath says in the NDP’s seven-page mental-health platform.

“We will introduce a minimum of six sessions for treatment through OHIP, rising to 12 sessions for patients who need it. This approach allows for people to start with six sessions and decide with their care provider to enrol in the second step, or move to more complex care.”

In contrast to Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, who have pledged $3.8 billion over 10 years on the “Roadmap to Wellnessprogram, the NDP would eventually spend triple that amount, overseen by a new agency called Mental Health Ontario.

The party believes that after two gruelling pandemic years, mental health will be a major issue in the election campaign that officially begins on May 4.

That’s why the NDP is releasing a stand-alone mental-health platform at a rally of candidates and supporters on Sunday afternoon at the Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto.

“We will get to work immediately to expand therapy access with a $500-million investment. When fully implemented, the estimated cost of providing this coverage will be $1.15 billion annually,” Horwath’s plan stated.

The New Democrats noted that under the existing system “your family doctor or community nurse can offer therapy services if they are trained to do so and this service may be covered by OHIP,” but the availability of treatment is spotty.

“Most family doctors don’t have training required to offer in-depth and ongoing psychotherapy and will refer patients to a psychiatrist. Choices for treatments available to patients can be limited by the experience and expertise of the psychiatrist,” the plan continued.

“Many patients would benefit from talk therapy, whereas psychiatrists typically focus on medical approaches. There are nurses, social workers, and community health workers providing free or low-cost therapy at ‘community-based’ mental health organizations. However, even these organizations have wait lists.”

Mindful that more front-line professionals would be needed, the NDP plans to “fund primary-care doctors, nurses, community health-care workers and social workers to be trained in cognitive behavioural therapy to increase the number of available, affordable and culturally appropriate CBT practitioners.”

As well, the party would expand the “Ontario Structured Psychotherapy Program working with existing community-based providers to bring them into the publicly funded system” and bolster the network of health teams.

“An Ontario NDP government will introduce legislation that recognizes mental health is as important as physical health and ensures that mental health services provided by qualified health care professionals and community health workers are insured through OHIP, whether they are provided in a hospital or community health centre,” the platform says.

For her part, Horwath emphasized “mental health care is health care” and the next provincial government must recognize that.

“We can take action to fix it — so in Ontario, you’ll get mental health care with your OHIP card, not your credit card,” the NDP leader said.

“Never has the need been so great. A silent epidemic of mental health struggles swept in with COVID, exposing just how broken Ontario’s system is. Millions of people are dealing with anxiety, stress and fear for their loved ones, their health and their jobs,” she said.

“After two years of disruption, countless kids are struggling with personality changes and anxiety. Too many of us are coping with grief and loss. Too often, people who think they need help also think they’ll never be able to afford it. People are suffering with nowhere to turn.”

Conceding it is a major investment, Horwath noted that for every dollar spent on mental-health services, between $1.78 and $3.15 is saved in social services, criminal justice and emergency response spending.

That suggests a universal mental-health program could save the Ontario economy $10 billion over the next five years.

“Guaranteeing mental-health care without cost will relieve pressure on hospitals, emergency services and the justice system. But most importantly, it’ll help people live their healthiest, best life,” she said.

Steven Del Duca’s Liberals have yet to release their plans for tackling mental-health challenges.

But Green Leader Mike Schreiner promised last month to spend $1.1 billion annually on cutting wait times for children’s services, launching a three-digit hotline for mental distress, and creating new trails and parks to give more outdoor spaces.

Schreiner’s plan would be funded by reinstating the licence plate sticker fees that Ford scrapped in February as a pre-election move.

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie