Psychologists are struggling to meet demand amid a rising mental health crisis.
Results from the American Psychological Association’s 2022 COVID-19 Practitioner Impact Survey show that most practitioners have no openings for new patients and have waitlists that are longer than before the pandemic began.
“It is very concerning. Even before the pandemic, the system had trouble meeting the demand for mental health services. During the pandemic, the demand overwhelmed us. While many people were seeking help for acute issues brought on by COVID, a sizeable number of those people will have ongoing, serious problems which require treatment. This stress on the system will likely worsen and go on past the foreseeable future,” Shane Owens, PhD, a board-certified psychologist told Theravive.
The survey found that the demand for treatment for anxiety and depression remains high and demand for treatment for trauma, stressor related disorders and substance use disorders is also rising.
79% of psychologists reported they were seeing an increase in patients with anxiety disorders. 66% said they have seen an increase in depressive disorders among patients, while 64% said disorder relating to trauma and stressors were high.
Obsessive-compulsive disorders and substance and addictive disorders have continued to rise since the pandemic began.
65% of psychologists reported that severity of symptoms was also increasing among patients in 2022.
More than half of psychologists say they have no more openings for patients.
“We need more well-trained clinicians and attractive and effective prevention programs to keep up with demand. Human beings are resilient. If we give them access to effective and engaging self-help, many would never need treatment from a professional. To serve those who require treatment, we need more clinicians trained in effective therapy, mainly behavioral and cognitive therapy,” Owens said.
He says that if a person approaches a psychologist who is unavailable, there are a number of options.
“If the psychologist you call isn’t taking new clients, a person should always ask for additional referrals. The person can also ask about websites that might be able to provide referrals. The person should also ask to be added to the psychologist’s waitlist in case they do not find care. If a person is covered by managed care, those companies have a list of providers the person can consult. In an emergency, a person should visit an emergency room or psychiatric emergency clinic.”
With many psychologists having long wait lists or not accepting new patients at all, Owens says there are steps people can take to ensure they keep themselves healthy while waiting for support.
“It makes sense to start with Maslow’s hierarchy. If you’re having trouble, ask yourself if you are eating well, sleeping well, getting enough exercise, and if you are physically safe. Make sure all of those things are taken care of. A physician may be an excellent first consult if you’re having trouble with any of those,” he said.
“If there are safety concerns, then contact law enforcement or social services. Socialization is also vital for health and well-being, so spending time with valued others or finding a support group might help. Both government and private self-help programs exist for many problems. With the proliferation of mental health apps, self-help is available all the time through your phone.”
Across all age groups, the age group with the largest increase in patients was in adolescents aged between 13 and 17. 46% of psychologists reported such an increase in patient population in the past 12 months and 51% said there had been an increase among this group since the pandemic began.
40% reported an increase of patients between 18-25 and 38% reported an increase in children under 13.
“This makes sense. These kids were pretty young when the pandemic started. Not only did they not have the internal resources to manage the horror of the pandemic, but the adults who were supposed to help them were experiencing the same problems. It’s improbable that any kid will emerge from the pandemic unscathed,” Owens said.
“Kids showing signs of distress must be evaluated as quickly as possible. In almost all cases, the earlier someone gets help—in whatever form that takes—the better the prognosis. Parents and caregivers can also access self-help and parenting groups for their own support in dealing with their kids’ issues.”
Owens argues that while the US is facing a mental health crisis, this could be an opportunity to fix problems that began long before the pandemic started.
“The US is not well-equipped to deal with the mental health crisis. There is no end in sight. While this sounds dire, it allows us to focus on and fix the problems that existed before the pandemic. Good things can come from this crisis if we put our attention and effort into making the necessary changes,” he said.
“The pandemic brought new problems and magnified old ones. We were overwhelmed before the pandemic. Mental health clinician education is prohibitively expensive and varies greatly in quality. We should pay more attention to population-based prevention programs, which are effective in helping people who never require direct treatment. When treating people, we must use the most efficient and effective treatments. Almost always, a person’s best bet for recovery is behavioral and cognitive therapy delivered by a skilled and wise clinician.”