The biggest reason it’s so hard to find a mental health practitioner

We don’t have enough of them.

As I run around in my real job discussing mental health, I consistently come back to this one central truth: The biggest issue in the area of mental health is that we simply do not have enough people to provide care, or who take Medicare or Medicaid. This means that, when you call a psychologist or psychiatrist, the most likely response is, “I’m sorry, but the Doctor is not accepting patients at this time.”

Consider this: According to a 2016 study, the supply of mental health practitioners by 2025 is expected to be 250,000 short. This disturbing trend is occurring despite the fact that rates of mental illness and suicide continue to increase, and increase alarmingly among the youngest members of our society.

Interestingly, the above article notes that a big part for the rise in demand of mental health practitioners has been a lessening of the stigma which surrounds mental health. As more people become more comfortable with seeking treatment, they put a greater strain on the need for mental health providers.

The problem is particularly bad in rural areas, where, according to this 2018 CNN article, “a majority of non-metropolitan counties (65%) do not have a psychiatrist and almost half of non-metropolitan counties (47%) do not have a psychologist.” This shortage contributes to higher rates of mental illness, addiction, and suicide in rural communities. Indeed, it helps explain why rural areas typically have higher suicide rates than their urban counterparts.

So, what can we do about this?

I’d argue the biggest challenge is the need to increase mental health reimbursement rates, which are historically lower for mental health services. These low rates typically steer prospective doctors away from mental health specialties and into more lucrative practice areas like cardiology and oncology. Increasing these rates would help recruit more practitioners.

Additional funding is also needed for recruitment and loan forgiveness programs. Many states – including Pennsylvania – have begun enacting these programs in an effort to increase access.

Private practitioners and hospital systems also need to step up their game when it comes to this area, but according to the article above, the good news is that they are doing just that. I know that both of the major health networks in my area have said they are looking to expand capacity and recruitment when it comes to psychologists and psychiatrists, and they aren’t the only ones

If you are interested in the interaction between mental health and public policy, you really should pay attention to this space. There will be a lot more in this area in teh next few years.

Physician shortages: The biggest challenge facing mental health in America

I often write about stigma and the devastating role it can play in terms of keeping people out of treatment.  I think a big part of the reason I discuss it so frequently is that it’s the one area that people can actually get involved in and feel like they are making a difference.

That being said, I need to be clear about this one: Stigma reduction, though important, is not the most critical issue facing mental health.  That, I would argue, is a lack of capacity, largely in terms of mental health practitioners.

The facts on our ongoing physician shortage crisis are staggering:

  • According to a report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, over the next eight years, the United States will experience a doctor shortage of between 61,700 – 94,700.
  • That problem is much more acute in the area of mental health.  According to one report, in order to meet demand, the United States needs to add 70,000 providers over the next eight years if we are going to meet a growing demand.  The problem is even worse for people who live in rural areas; 60% of all people in rural areas live in a mental health professional shortage area.  In general, according to NAMI, only 41% of all people with mental illness are treated, while that number increases to 63% of all people with a serious mental illness.
  • The shortage doesn’t just affect personnel, but facilities.  It can be extremely difficult for the mentally ill who need inpatient care to have access to it, with some surveys estimating that the United States needs a whopping 123,000 psychiatric beds.

How did we get here?
As you can imagine, there are a variety of culprits, including:

  • Incredibly high standards to get into medical school and a long length of time for training.
  • Crushing medical student loan debt (averaging $207,000).
  • A shortage of residency slots for hospitals.  These slots are almost entirely funded by Medicaid, and that funding has not increased since 1997.
  • High cost of malpractice insurance.
  • Varying reimbursement rates for different specialties (more on this later).

Why is this problem so much worse in mental health?
This problem is even more acute in the mental health universe, where amount of psychiatrists declined 10% from 2003-2013.  The shortage gets even more severe as you go into mental health specialties, such as pediatric and geriatric care.

Again, there are many reasons that this issue is so problematic for mental health.  For one thing, hospitals and insurance companies pay doctors more if they are involved in specialties that turn a profit, like orthopedic surgery and urology…not psychology or psychiatry.  Additional public cuts to human services and mental health further exacerbate the problem. As a result, there is less staff in this area, regardless of it’s importance.

Physician burnout is also a problem, with one study noting that “86 percent reporting high exhaustion and 90 percent reporting high cynicism.”

Another problematic area is physician training, where there are concerns that training models have not evolved enough to introduce more medical students to mental health areas.

There’s more – much more than a simple blog entry can handle.  For a more in-depth look, I highly recommend that you review this report by the National Council for Behavioral Health.

What can we do about it?

  • Increasingly utilize technology and telehealth, which some studies have shown to be promising in the area of mental health.  With additional capacity, telehealth can help overcome geographic shortfalls that occur.  Other systems, such as bed and doctor registries, can help patients in need of treatment find appropriate resources.
  • Expanded number of residency slots.
  • Adjustment to reimbursement rates to ensure that mental health services achieve parity with other areas.
  • Adjustment to licensure laws in order to allow for other certified professionals – with appropriate training – to treat patients.

It is important to not lose sight of this simple truth: The mental health practitioner shortage can devastate the quality of life of the mentally ill.  It can kill people, frankly.  In my government job, my office regularly fields calls from constituents who need help but can’t find it.  Mental health is an issue that society is only truly starting to understand and deal with.  We must ensure that the mentally ill have the access to the resources that they need.