By: Jaclyn Kotora, Contributing Writer
Edited by: Olivia Storti, Editor; Elias Azizi, Editor in Chief
After the emergence of COVID-19, which brought about profound change and isolation, mental health services have been increasingly in demand. Pre-pandemic, there were already many existing barriers to receiving mental health care, and COVID-19 further exacerbated mental health issues for many people. The shortage of mental health care professionals is the main issue behind these barriers, creating mental health professional shortage areas. These are geographic regions, population groups, and health care facilities that have a shortage of health providers in combination with consideration of the poverty rate, ages, the prevalence of alcohol and substance abuse, and travel time to a facility in the area.
But why do people need the help of mental health care professionals? Therapists can help someone better understand and cope with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors while also offering guidance to assist one in their recovery or life goals. Mental health professionals are also qualified to assess and diagnose mental health disorders and help people receive the help they need. The NAMI explains, “Working with one of these mental health professionals can lead not only to symptom reduction but to better ways of thinking, feeling, and living.”
However, as the pandemic rages on, therapists find themselves amidst a mental health crisis, and are unable to keep up with the demand for mental health services. As stated by USAFacts, “An estimated 122 million Americans, or 37% of the population, lived in 5,833 mental health professional shortage areas as of March 31.” With the already existing shortage of mental health professionals, many Americans are unable to receive the care needed, especially for children and teenagers. COVID-19 has had a profound effect on children who experienced a sudden realignment of their life— like losing normal social connection, attention, and school life—unequipped with the coping mechanisms an adult may have. According to Medical Press, “Throughout America, there are an estimated 15 million children and adolescents in need of therapy from mental health professionals, according to Jeffrey Geller, president of the American Psychiatric Association. Yet, he added, there are just 8,000 to 9,000 psychiatrists treating children and teenagers in the United States.”
This need for therapy comes from both former patients and new patients seeking help with anxiety, depression, financial stress, substance use, job worries, and other issues that have surfaced during the pandemic. Therapists are feeling the harsh effects of this demand as “mental health professionals are drowning…Burnout and compassion fatigue is real — as well as the guilt we feel when we cannot see all of our patients, and the waitlists continue to grow,” (Brooke Bendix, NYTimes).
However, there is some optimism to be found as an effect of recent events. After the murder of George Floyd, anti-Asian hate crimes, and other racial issues, more people of color were reaching out for help, seeking support for racial justice. Additionally, people are becoming more accepting of therapy and mental health after Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka spoke openly about their mental health issues in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Steve Alexander Jr., a licensed mental health counselor from Brooklyn, shared, “Mental health is becoming more normalized, and people are not plagued with the same stigma as they have been in the past.” Especially for people of color, there has always been a stigma around mental health problems and services. However, hopefully, through the trying events our world has faced in the past years, people are more open and accepting of the notion.
Due to the adverse events in recent years, therapists predict that the effects will be seen in many years to come. The New York Times states, “Six out of 10 therapists surveyed said the high demand for services would remain at current levels for some time. And nearly four in 10 therapists predicted that things would get much worse and that they would struggle to meet the mental health needs of their patients in the coming months.” In terms of solving this growing issue, there is much speculation about what could be done, including potential state or federal intervention to aid the crisis. “Financial and insurance issues are among the biggest obstacles to patients finding care. Many therapists require cash payment and find it too difficult to work directly with insurance companies or Medicaid. Restrictive rules by state boards can prevent therapists in some states from offering telehealth sessions to clients who have moved to another state,” explains the New York Times. If states can ease these restrictions and provide easier access to health care, more people would be able to receive mental health services.
The rise of the pandemic and other world issues have caused an uproar in mental health issues for people of all ages. Mental health care professionals, who were already in shortage, are now strained to provide care to the high demand of clients. Existing barriers in receiving healthcare have further magnified the crisis. Although healthcare in America is very complex, there are ways to make healthcare more affordable and accessible. Fewer rules, easier access, or more availability of telehealth would all be a step in the right direction to allow more people to benefit from mental health services.