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Therapists say they can’t meet high demand as anxiety, depression linger

The Washington Post 11/17/2022 Teddy Amenabar
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America’s therapists are booked. Six in 10 psychologists say they don’t have openings for new patients, according to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association.

The high demand for therapy is the latest sign of and ongoing U.S. mental health crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Though millions of Americans have returned to normal life, many people feel far from normal. A majority of the psychologists surveyed said that since the start of the pandemic, they’ve seen an uptick in patients who are dealing with anxiety, depression and trauma, and that the demand for services continues to remain 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, a senior director of health-care innovation at the American Psychological Association. “And that’s only gotten worse.”

The APA survey was conducted Sept. 20 to Oct. 7 among 2,294 doctoral-level psychologists who are licensed and active in the United States. The survey was distributed to 62,900 psychologists for whom the APA has contact information, accounting for about half of U.S. psychologists, the organization said.

The association started conducting the annual survey three years ago, when the pandemic first hit, and Wright said the latest survey shows “things are not improving” for practitioners or their patients.

Parker Hilton, a licensed professional counselor in Red Bank, N.J., told The Washington Post that he recently “started from scratch” and launched his own private practice at the beginning of October. Six weeks in, he’s already fully booked, meeting with up to 35 patients per week. Hilton said he’s seeing more people who are asking “big, wide questions” in existential conversations about meaning and purpose to life.

“What I’m seeing more than anything is people who want to connect, people who feel alone, people who feel really lost,” he said.

Susan Duncan, a licensed professional counselor in Tucson, said she doesn’t know any other therapists in Tucson who are taking new appointments. Many aren’t even picking up their phone, she told The Post, because they’re so busy meeting with their patients.

“I’m turning a lot of people away, and it’s heartbreaking. It’s really heart breaking,” Duncan said. “I think a lot of therapists are just really over — they’re maxed out.”

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

“The young women I am seeing, I am just blown away with the anxiety,” Duncan said. “It’s this physical manifestation of anxiety, which I hadn’t seen to this extent before.”

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In the APA survey, 51 percent of psychologists reported seeing higher rates of teens seeking therapy since the beginning of the pandemic. Hilton said that in the past, youths used to go “kicking and screaming” to appointments. Now they’re telling their parents they want to go, he said.

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

“I know kids who lost all of their grandparents in the course of a couple of months,” said Leah Seeger, a marriage and family therapist and licensed alcohol and drug counselor based in Minneapolis. “It’s a big impact to navigate those big losses. And when they happen much faster, it’s harder.”

Roughly 7 in 10 public schools are reporting a rise in 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 staffers for mental health support at 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 around therapy as older generations may have. Regardless of their age, Nemes said, her new patients often come in because of symptoms of anxiety, depression “or lack of motivation.”

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

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

Seeger said the question she has been trying to help people answer lately is: What do we do now?

“We are now dealing with the aftermath of what happened in those years,” Seeger said. “If your family business closed down because of the pandemic, you might be in a crisis moment dealing with it, but the effects after that are still going to show up in people’s psychological experience weeks, months or years afterwards.”

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