The good news? Mental health awareness is at an all-time high.
Coupled with the increased range and severity of mental health issues—increasing rates of opioid addiction, depression, and suicides—the demand for mental health providers is greater than ever.
The bad news? There simply aren’t enough mental health professionals to meet these needs.
The cause of this shortage is a many faceted issue.
CHALLENGE #1: Mental healthcare is not treated the same way that physical healthcare is.
From a professional standpoint, choosing to become a mental health provider lacks the same sort of “rewards” that those who focus on physical care experience. “While other medical specialties such as cardiology and orthopedic surgery offer healthcare providers center-based care where patient illnesses can be treated with medical procedures or tangible intervention care, mental health coverage often requires long-term management without a defined ‘cure’ that is often not profitable,” says a MerrittHawkins report. Add in the fact that many people do not consider mental illness in the same manner as physical illness, despite increased awareness, and it’s no surprise that there’s a shortage of mental health providers.
CHALLENGE #2: The retirement drain is greater in mental health than any other branch of medicine.
Currently, there are only 28,000 psychiatrists in the U.S—and that number is projected to decrease rather rapidly. Why? Three in five practicing psychiatrists are 55 or older. That’s one of the highest proportions among all specialties, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). So while the demand for psychiatrists is on the rise, their numbers are doing anything but, despite attempts from medical schools and teaching hospitals across the country.
CHALLENGE #3: Funding for mental health programs was capped in 1997.
The federal government funds medical residency programs put a cap on mental health oriented tracks back in 1997 through the Balanced Budget Act. This limits the amount of money that can be invested in residency programs, which in turn delays many potential residents on their journey to become mental health providers. While a potential bill—the so-called Physician Shortage Act—may eventually help adjust these restrictions, there’s been no finite sign of change yet.
CHALLENGE #4: Mental health providers aren’t distributed evenly throughout the country.
One in five Americans is reported to have some sort of mental health condition. And yet seventy-seven percent of U.S. counties report a severe deficiency of psychiatrists. Why? Mental health providers simply aren’t spread uniformly throughout the country. The majority of the 28,000 practice in California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Florida. For example: there are more than 3,800 psychiatrists in California, but only 34 in the entirety of Wyoming. This results in mental health patients in rural and less advantaged urban areas being under-served.
It will take both time and effort to ensure that mental health patients—regardless of where they live or what condition they have—have access to the care that they require. Understanding the cause of this disparity between supply and demand of mental healthcare is key to the industry moving forward.