So you and your doctor/friend/spouse/relative have come to the conclusion that you would benefit from therapy. After months or maybe years of toying with the idea, you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and do the tough work of introspection and behavior change. The hard part, you tell yourself, is behind you.
And then you start to look for a therapist.
A new study, summarized nicely in this piece in the Boston Globe, offers a sobering view of the mental health services landscape from the consumer point of view. Researchers posed as a parent seeking child psychiatric services for a depressed 12-year-old child. Using publicly available information provided by health insurance companies, the researchers found that nearly a quarter of the time, the phone number provided was out of date or plain wrong. When they were able to make an appointment, the average wait time was well over a month. About a quarter of the psychiatrists contacted were not accepting new patients.
Another study, published last year, suggests that access to psychotherapy is complicated by the (perceived) race and class of the person calling to seek therapy. The researcher found that calls to therapists from middle class adults were three times more likely than calls from working class adults to result in the offer of an appointment. However, within the middle class group, white callers were more successful than black callers in securing an appointment.
The results of these studies, and of the everyday experiences of people who seek mental health treatment, should give mental health professionals pause. Although many professionals are working at full capacity, many continue to accept health insurance despite stagnant or even decreasing payments, and many strive to be equitable in offering services, it isn’t enough. Whether we like it or not, we are part of the problem and a necessary part of the solution. It is up to mental health professionals of all stripes to advocate for fairer, more equitable, and more sustainable systems to meet the high burden of mental health service needs in the US.