A shortage of psychiatrists contributes to problems accessing mental health care

Shortage of Psychiatrists

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is set to expand health insurance coverage to millions of uninsured Americans. This coverage will not only help them gain access to doctors who treat physical ailments, but mental health care professionals as well. While it’s certainly good that some people who have untreated mental health problems will have more opportunities to get the care they need, they may find that it’s harder to get in to see a psychiatrist than they think.

According to an article published by The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced in 2013 that an estimated 91 million Americans live in parts of the country where an insufficient number of mental health providers make it difficult for them to get treatment. Furthermore, a report sent to Congress in early 2014 stated that out of America’s 3,100 counties, an estimated 55 percent have no psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers.

For example, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that 104 out of 114 Missouri counties are considered mental health shortage areas by the federal government. In St. Louis, a patient can expect to wait between 10 to 30 days to see a psychiatrist, and that wait can be as long as six months for specialists who treats children and teens. Keith Schafer, director of the Missouri Department of Mental Health, told the news source that this shortage is having a devastating impact on the state and its resources, as people who need mental health services end up in emergency rooms instead.

“It’s creating huge problems for individuals, for families, for emergency rooms and certainly for law enforcement officials,” Schafer told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Missouri is not the only state that is experiencing the effects of a dwindling number of psychiatrists. The Kansas Health Institute reported that out of the 105 counties in Kansas, 100 of them are considered to be mental health shortage areas. In order to address this problem, health advocates in the state are calling for more residency slots at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

“The difficulty with psychiatric coverage at the state hospitals I think is the same as at the CMHCs [community mental health centers] and the private hospitals. There’s not enough supply,” said Shawn Sullivan, secretary of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, quoted by the Kansas Health Institute. “My understanding is that we have very few psychiatric residency slots at KU Medical Center. I think that’s something we really need to take a hard look at in the next two years and we need to work with the Board of Regents on increasing slots.”

Accessing mental health care remains a concern everywhere
The Wall Street Journal reported that even individuals who live in the 45 percent of U.S. counties that do have more accessible mental health professionals may have trouble getting care. According to a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, even in areas such as Washington, D.C. and  Massachusetts – where there are many psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers – so many people are trying to get in to see these professionals that many have stopped taking private insurance or new patients.

An estimated 6.8 million uninsured individuals who have mental health problems will gain access to insurance once the ACA is fully implemented. The news source spoke to Jeffrey Lieberman, M.D., president of the American Psychiatric Association, who explained that he believes that this increase in the number of patients looking for care will “overwhelm if not inundate” the industry.


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