Help Wanted: Need for Mental Health Care Exceeds Available Providers

May 21, 2021

As we near the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, recognition of the psychological challenges many Americans face and efforts by employers to address employee wellbeing may be at all-time highs. Yet the number of U.S. residents in need of mental-health assistance also appears to be at a record level — in marked disproportion to the number of professionals available to help.

From January through June of 2019 — pre-pandemic times — 11% of American adults reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By the time the agency revisited that subject in December 2020, the percentage had climbed to 42%.

Since December, the United States has made tremendous progress in combatting COVID-19, with more than 279 million vaccine doses administered and 126 million residents (38.1%) fully vaccinated as of May 20. But while vaccines are readily available for the vast majority of Americans who still need them, professional help for people experiencing anxiety or depression is not.

According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 U.S. adults experiences mental illness in a given year, but fewer than half of adults with a mental health condition receive care, and the average time between the onset of symptoms and the delivery of treatment is 11 years. Based on a recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and a survey by the National Council for Behavioral Health (NCBH), that may be understating matters.

“In a February 2021 survey of its members, NCBH found that in the three months preceding the survey, about two-thirds of the member organizations surveyed reported demand for their services increasing and having to cancel or reschedule patient appointments or turn patients away,” the GAO said in an April 30 release. “The survey also found that during the pandemic, 27 percent of member organizations reported laying off employees, 45 percent reported closing some programs, and 35 percent decreased the hours of staff.”

In short, too many people are struggling and can’t get the help they need. Even mental health professionals find themselves at a loss.

“Every single person I see needs therapy right now,” Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis whose patients are mostly college students and healthcare workers told the New York Times. “They come back and say, ‘I’ve called 20 people, and I don’t know what to do.’”

Referrals, Online Vendors and Pharmacies 

While mental health professionals are experiencing their own frustrations with the lack of available services, some may be able to provide referrals. Primary care physicians can be helpful in that regard as well, and some may be willing to prescribe medication for mild to moderate symptoms.

In addition, Psychology Today maintains an extensive online database that enables users to search by location, insurance carrier, specialty and more.

An employer-sponsored wellness program also may provide assistance. According to a 2021 survey by Alight Solutions, 85% of employees who use them find such programs easy to access, with 83% saying the programs enhance their employment experience.

And if you aren’t already able, you may soon be able to find mental health care at your local pharmacy. CVS, Walmart Health, Rite Aid and Walgreens recently introduced counseling services or other forms of support online or at pilot locations, as the Times reported earlier this month.

A Menu of Apps 

Increasingly, Americans are finding assistance on their devices through self-help apps – often at the advice of professionals. The website PsychCentral recently published its list of “The Best Apps for Depression in 2021,” along with descriptions and reviews for each of the following:

No app is a substitute for professional counseling or appropriate medication, but to decrease stress or mitigate depression, you may find one or more of these useful.

Concerned About Self-Harm? Have a Plan. 

If you are contemplating self-harm, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or call 911. If you are prone to suicidal ideation but aren’t in immediate danger, have a plan in place for an emergency, and share it with a trusted friend or loved one. The plan may include warning signs or trigger words to let someone know urgent care is required.

NAMI’s resources include its weekday HelpLine, an online chat and, for crisis situations, 24/7 text-message access to trained crisis counselors – all accessible here. And the CDC’s How Right Now campaign offers specific resources and support for people experiencing emotions including anger, fear, grief, loneliness, sadness, stress, uncertainty and worry.

Finally, if work is a primary contributor to ongoing struggles with mental health but the need for help is not acute, you may find it helpful to watch the Alera Group webinar “Managing Stress and Burnout,” featuring Dr. Myra Altman of Modern Health. Recorded in October 2020, the webinar is available by clicking on the link below.


About the Author

Elizabeth Entin, MPH, RD, LDN
Director of Health Strategies and Solutions
SIG, An Alera Group Company

Elizabeth Entin is a health and wellness professional dedicated to building a thriving workplace culture to increase employee engagement and improve overall health and well-being. In addition to holding a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree from the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, she is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Licensed Dietitian-Nutritionist.

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