Americans have had their fair share of shortages, from baby formula to food and paper products to gas and electricity. Yet some shortages, particularly the mental health workforce shortage, are already causing major disruptions in patient care and affecting patients’ long-term prognosis. While October has a mental illness awareness week, it’s important to note that one thing the overall healthcare system is struggling with is staffing to treat Americans’ mental health.
Mental Health Workforce Shortage
Just how dire is the staffing situation affecting mental health workers? While the demand for mental health services continues to rise, the continuing mental health professional shortage means that many much-needed mental and behavioral health services are not being provided to patients. With one in five Americans experiencing some type of mental health condition, shortages of healthcare providers in the mental health and supporting fields are troublesome.
A report from the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) indicates that there will be a shortage of about 122 million doctors by 2032. Yet the population of those individuals over the age of 65 is expected to increase by 48 percent by 2032.
A study published in early 2022 cited a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that “more than 275,000 additional nurses are needed from 2020 to 2030.” Some sources state that the shortage of psychiatrists is acute and will continue to worsen. By 2025, the shortfall is projected to range from 6,000 to more than 15,000 psychiatrists.
Staffing shortages aren’t unique to healthcare, but it hits the mental health field particularly hard. What caused this workforce shortage?
- COVID-19 – The non-stop demand for medical professionals, grueling hours, and daily exposure to suffering and death took a tremendous toll on those in the medical and mental health professions. Continuing lockdowns and the crushing burden of despair cast a pall that severely affected healthcare workers to the point that many left the field entirely. Pandemic shortages caused many professional healthcare workers to make different career choices.
- Burnout – Working as a mental health professional is a highly stressful job. Burnout, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicidal thoughts and behavior are other contributing factors to the ongoing mental health workforce shortage.
- Attrition – Thousands of highly skilled healthcare professionals, nearing the end of their careers, made the often-painful decision to retire early. Others left the profession for careers in another field, further exacerbating the mental health professional shortage.
- An Aging Population – The population of America is aging, which worsens the problem of the mental health workforce shortage. Baby Boomers and other older adults are more likely to need medical and mental health care, and the shortage of mental health professionals means many patients won’t receive adequate care. As people age, they will develop chronic physical and mental health conditions requiring ongoing care from a healthcare system already in crisis.
What Is Being Done to Meet the Demand for Mental Health Workers?
A report from Duquesne University outlines several strategies to address shortages of workers in the healthcare field. These include attracting more nurses to the role of primary care, making careers in healthcare more accessible through online degrees and certificate programs, promoting preventative measures and public health, and paving the way for healthcare workers to have a say in decision-making for policies and legislation affecting their field.
Private companies are creating internship programs to attract candidates to help address the mental health workforce shortage. Regional campuses of major colleges have begun to offer social work programs that can serve as a pipeline to help fill the backlog of mental healthcare positions. The idea is to bring people into the healthcare system, develop their skills, and create enough enthusiasm and synergy during the internship period that the students decide to remain in the field.
At the same time, since salary is one consideration and starting salaries in the healthcare profession haven’t always been competitive, some companies are raising starting salaries to entice more candidates. They’re also beefing up benefits, This is one of several barriers that are being addressed to provide more accessible mental health care.
Telehealth, including telepsychiatry, offers the potential for bringing necessary mental health care to patients in rural areas. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 111 million people live in areas with mental health professional shortages. The mental health workforce shortage in America is more of a problem in sparsely populated states like Tennessee, Utah, and Vermont, and in the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam.
What’s the federal government doing to address the shortages? As outlined in President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address, governmental programs designed to improve mental health workforce shortages include:
- Investment in programs to increase the number of behavioral health providers. These programs include the Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training Program, the National Health Service Corps, and the minority Fellowship Program.
- Multi-year funding to train medical paraprofessionals. Acknowledging that doctors and nurses can’t tackle this problem of shortages alone, the new funding seeks to add to the number of community health and support workers to provide services, like behavioral health services, to underserved communities.
- Development and implementation of a national certification program designed for peer specialists.
- Promotion of the mental well-being of this country’s frontline healthcare workforce.
- Launch of the “988” crisis response line, along with strengthening the community-based response to crises.
- Expanding the availability of evidence-based mental health services in the community.
- Integration of mental health and substance abuse treatment into primary care settings.
- Expand access to mental healthcare via virtual- and telehealth options.
- In schools, universities, and colleges, expand access to mental health support.
- Co-locate and embed substance use and mental health providers into settings based in the community.
- Improve navigation on government online treatment locator resources so that Americans can find what they need for treatment. Improved access for military members, veterans, and their families via a one-stop online resource is also part of the plan.
Looking Toward the Future
The crisis affecting Americans’ access to mental healthcare due to the mental health workforce shortage didn’t happen overnight. It was, however, a looming shortfall that only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Solving these healthcare shortages will take time, determination, consensus, and support from public and private institutions and companies. It will also require a willingness to push for effective solutions to combat stress and burnout among mental health workers.
At FHE Health, our experienced staff are always available to answer any questions, day or night, 365 days of the year. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health condition and need help finding treatment, contact our professionals at (833) 596-3502