Therapists say they can't keep up with high demand as anxiety and depression linger

Therapists say they can’t keep up with high demand as anxiety and depression linger


American therapists are reserved. According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, six out of ten psychologists say they have no openings for new patients.

The high demand for therapy is the latest sign of a mental health crisis in the United States, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Although millions of Americans have returned to normal life, many people feel far from normal. The majority of psychologists surveyed said that since the start of the pandemic, they have seen an increase in the number of patients suffering from anxiety, depression and trauma, and that demand for services remains high.

“We had a workforce shortage before the pandemic where we just didn’t have enough therapists to meet the mental health needs of this country,” said Vaile Wright, senior director of innovation at health care at the American Psychological Association. “And it only got worse.”

The APA survey was conducted from September 20 through October 7 among 2,294 psychologists with doctoral degrees who are licensed and active in the United States. The survey was distributed to 62,900 psychologists whose contact information the APA has, which represents about half of U.S. psychologists, the organization said.

The association began conducting the annual survey three years ago when the pandemic first hit, and Wright said the latest survey shows “things aren’t getting better” for practitioners or their patients.

Parker Hilton, a licensed professional adviser in Red Bank, NJ, told the Washington Post that he recently “started from scratch” and launched his own private practice in early October. Six weeks later, it is already fully booked, seeing up to 35 patients per week. Hilton said he sees more and more people asking “big, wide questions” in existential conversations about the meaning and purpose of life.

“What I see more than anything is people wanting to connect, people feeling lonely, people feeling really lost,” he said.

Susan Duncan, a licensed professional counselor in Tucson, said she didn’t know of any other therapists in Tucson who were taking new appointments. Many don’t even pick up their phones, she told the Post, because they’re so busy meeting with their patients.

“I turn down a lot of people and it’s heartbreaking. It’s really heartbreaking,” Duncan said. “I think a lot of therapists are really overwhelmed – they’re maxed out.”

She said anxiety issues, especially among young people, are common.

“The young women I see, I’m just overwhelmed with anxiety,” Duncan said. “It’s this physical manifestation of anxiety, which I’ve never seen like this before.”

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In the APA survey, 51% of psychologists said they had seen higher rates of teens seeking therapy since the start of the pandemic. Hilton said that in the past, young people used to go “kicking and screaming” on dates. Now they tell their parents they want to go, he said.

A survey conducted last year by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that teens and young adults have been most stressed by the pandemic and the effect it has had on their lives.

“I know children who have lost all of their grandparents within a few months,” said Leah Seeger, marriage and family therapist and licensed alcohol and drug counselor based in Minneapolis. “It’s a big impact to navigate these big losses. And when they arrive much faster, it is more difficult.

About 7 in 10 public schools are reporting an increase in the number of students seeking mental health services since the start of the pandemic, according to federal data released in May. And Congress has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to fund and hire staff for mental health support in schools across the country.

Yuliana Nemes, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Upland, Calif., said teens and young adults don’t seem to attach the same stigma to therapy as older generations. Regardless of their age, Nemes said, her new patients often come because of symptoms of anxiety, depression “or a lack of motivation.”

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Nearly half of therapists surveyed by the APA said they have also seen an increase in the number of patients seeking treatment for substance use disorders. Amid the shutdowns in the early months of the pandemic, some people turned to alcohol to cope. Alcohol-related deaths in the United States have reached the highest rate in decades during the pandemic. Seeger said she thinks people are now starting to notice their addictions are a problem.

“Often we don’t realize there’s a problem until months, weeks or years later,” she said.

Seeger said the question she’s been trying to help people answer lately is: what do we do now?

“We are now faced with the consequences of what happened over those years,” Seeger said. “If your family business has closed due to the pandemic, you might be in a moment of crisis to deal with it, but the effects after that are still going to show up in people’s psychological experience for weeks, months or years later.”

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