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Psychologists say they can't meet the growing demand for mental health care

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For the third consecutive year, many psychologists across the country say they are seeing patients struggle with worsening symptoms, many of them needing longer treatment times.

Those are among the findings of an annual survey by the American Psychological Association, released this week. The APA first launched this survey in 2020 to gauge the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on practicing psychologists.

A majority of psychologists reported that more people are seeking mental health care this year, adding to already long waitlists. Over half (56%) said they had no openings for new patients. Among those who keep waitlists, average wait times were three months or longer and nearly 40% said that their waitlist had grown in the past year.

"We continue to see incredibly high demand for mental health services and an incredibly limited supply," says psychologist Vaile Wright, senior director of Health Care Innovation at the APA. "This is not a sustainable solution to addressing the mental health crisis in this country."

The survey also found that more people are seeking help for certain kinds of mental health issues, especially anxiety disorders, depression, and trauma and stress related disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disturbances and addiction. Over half of psychologists said the length of time patients need treatment had increased.

These are all lingering mental health impacts of the pandemic, explains Wright.

"I think there are a variety of ways that individuals experienced trauma during the pandemic," she says. "It could be the loss of a loved one and the grief that comes along with that. It could be one's own sickness and the impact of hospitalizations."

The changes to people's personal lives brought about by pandemic-era public health measures, including changes to one's social life, jobs, and altered ability to care for loved ones, also added a lot of stress on people, she adds.

The mental health effects of it all often manifest after the traumas and stresses have passed. "It's when things actually start to quiet down that the impacts of all that we've gone through, all that stress, actually start to hit us," says Wright.

And mental health care providers themselves have been under tremendous stress since the beginning of the pandemic, she adds, as they quickly adapted to pandemic restrictions and the increased demands for care.

"It's been just very difficult the last number of years, first pivoting to virtual and now pivoting back to accommodation of in-person and hybrid," says psychologist Mary Alvord, founder of Alvord, Baker & Associates, a private practice in Chevy Chase and Rockville, Md.

"More of our intake calls are requesting in-person for the children," she adds. Whereas, adults prefer to meet virtually after one or two in-person appointments.

More than a third (36%) of the psychologists surveyed reported feeling burned out. While this is slightly less than the 2021 peak of 41%, the report notes that it is still a significant number of providers struggling to keep up with the demands of their work.

But the survey also revealed that two-thirds of psychologists are able to practice self-care to deal with work pressures and burnout, with nearly half relying on peer support to improve their own well-being.

Alvord, who did not participate in the survey, says she and her colleagues rely heavily on peer support. "We have peer consult groups throughout the week, and this is where we really support one another," she says. "And then personally, I walk 3 to 5 miles a day ... as a way that I relieve my stress."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rhitu Chatterjee
Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.