If I hear about one issue related to mental health over and over, it’s this: Why can’t I find someone to see me? Why is it so hard to find a therapist? Why can’t I find a bed to help me with my loved one who needs hospitalization? It is, unquestionably, the most frustrating issue in the mental health world – one that I would argue is more frustrating and problematic than general issues like access, affordability, parity, and stigma. Heck, we could solve all of these issues, but if we can’t get people into a therapist, it doesn’t matter.
The reason, roughly, comes down to this: A shortage of practitioners.
There is a well-documented shortage of mental health practitioners. According to available information, the shortage is growing across all fronts, including marriage and family therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and more. This shortage is particularly acute in some areas, like poorer states, or more rural states. It also gets worse as you start getting into specific areas of mental health, like geriatric or pediatrics psychology. In my home – the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania – we’re actually comparatively in good shape. This may come as a surprise to many people in our area!
So, why is there such a shortage? As you can imagine, there are many reasons. The biggest one is reimbursement rates. Simply put, psychiatrists and psychologists are not paid as much by insurance companies or Medicare/Medicaid as other doctors, particularly specialists. This, in turn, leads docs to go into more lucrative fields. That’s not it, of course. In fact, one of my legislative colleagues, Rep. Jeanne McNeill, was able to get a resolution passed that studied the mental health care practitioner shortage in Pennsylvania. That study identified numerous reasons, including regulatory barriers, burnout, parity issues, and information sharing.
What can we do about it? An in-depth analysis is well beyond my ability to address in a blog entry that I usually try not to break 500 words with, but in a nutshell, I think it comes down to investment. Everything above can be addressed with money. Not eliminated, of course. But absolutely addressed.
And, just like that, we’re back at my favorite topic. Everyone says they care about mental health. Great, neat. Can we do something about it? Can we pretend that it actually matters and invest in things like our workforce? In telehealth laws that will ensure that everyone has good access to mental health care, and broadband services to ensure that rural Americans can actually see a doctor no matter where they live? Can we enforce parity laws and ensure that larger insurance companies are meeting their needs when it comes to mental health coverage? Can we get the federal government to expand what they pay for in terms of mental health?
Gah. I’m on my soapbox again. But what I’m saying is accurate! Until the day comes that we actually treat mental health with the seriousness that it deserves, we’re gonna have practitioner shortages. This will limit the number of people that can get the care they deserve.