Following a tumultuous few years living with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people living in the United States are seeking mental health care than ever. Whether the pandemic exacerbated underlying mental health conditions or brought on new symptoms, the fact is that the nation is in dire need of mental health services. In fact, the United States Census Bureau reports that 30% of adults in the country have symptoms consistent with a depression or anxiety diagnosis.
According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, 135 million people in the U.S. are living in areas with a shortage of mental health care providers. Primarily rural areas are affected, though there are a number of states, including California, with shortages in suburban and urban areas.
Regarding sections of the population that are struggling with the shortage of mental health care providers, the most greatly affected individuals are those with substance use disorders.
Beyond the fact that people who are unable to receive treatment must deal with the consequences of mental illness, the disease burden of mental health and substance use disorders is high. In 2015, the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that the disease burden of mental health and substance use disorders was higher than any other medical condition.
Anna Ratzliff, MD, PhD, and associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington School of Medicine explains why a provider shortage is detrimental to not only those who need treatment but to entire communities. “Our whole society is affected by untreated mental illness. It affects people’s ability to work, build relationships, and contribute to their communities.”
While age is a factor considered in the current nurse exodus, the COVID-19 pandemic hastened the retirement of many nurses across the country due in large part to stress and burnout. Nursing is difficult both physically and mentally, and the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated these issues. Stress, causing a toll on the mental health of nurses, and overall burnout among nurses are major contributing factors to nurses choosing to leave staff positions in favor of contract/travel nursing.
According to a poll published by Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation, “roughly three in 10 healthcare workers have weighed leaving their profession. More than half are burned out. And about six in 10 say stress from the pandemic has harmed their mental health.” A significant shortage of nursing professionals results in a higher patient-to-nurse ratio.
A heavier patient load combined with other administrative duties and other daily tasks leads nurses to burn out more quickly.
California, like so many states, is struggling to provide the required resources for those seeking mental health care. Unfortunately, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health, the shortage is only expected to increase through the year 2025.
What can be Done?
One way that the healthcare industry has started to address the shortage is to aggressively recruit talent. Providing a strong culture of mentoring, UNMC has had great success in increasing the number of students who choose psychiatry. Since 2013, the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) has more than doubled the number of students choosing psychiatry. The school has been able to do this by providing exceptional education and high-quality medical school psychiatry clinical rotation.
In addition to recruiting students, the National Council for Wellbeing published a report encouraging the use of technology in mental health care. During the pandemic, many providers began offering telehealth services, allowing patients to receive treatment from their homes via video calls. This increased access for many people living in the United States and could be a beneficial tool for providers.
Another way that the National Council for Wellbeing suggests increasing access to mental health services is to make use of text messaging and apps, as timely service is crucial to patients in need. Open access scheduling is also a recommendation. Open access scheduling covers a variety of scheduling techniques including keeping a certain number of appointments open and creating blocks of time that are completely unscheduled.
The mental health crisis shows no signs of slowing down, and the shortage of providers is projected to grow. What are some ways your practice is attempting to address the provider shortage? What emerging technologies do you think would be beneficial in increasing access to mental health services.