Imagine you notice you don’t feel like you used to. You don’t enjoy activities that you once did, you start to have trouble sleeping, you’re worried all the time, you have trouble concentrating. Something is off, but you don’t know what. You go to your doctor and after a depression screening, your doctor suggests trying therapy. You’ve never been and have no idea what to expect. You’re doctor gives you a referral, you make an appointment, it’s covered by insurance, and you build a good rapport with the therapist. You get better and start to feel like yourself again.
That’s an ideal version of getting mental health care help in America. Often though, this is not the story I here. What I hear is stories of difficulties finding any therapist, let alone a therapist that takes insurance and specializes in what the person wants to work on. What I hear is stories of long waits for appointments, not being able to find affordable therapists, not being able to access higher levels of care. Stories like this. Stories of people who want help but can’t get it.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, with this year’s theme being #MoreThanEnough. If you’re not familiar with NAMI, or the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it’s a national non-profit advocating for mental illness awareness , reduce stigma, and provide vital resources to the public. In the spirit of mental health awareness month, I would also encourage us all to focus on how we can make these changes and more.
First, we need to increase access to resources. This is where social media, non-profits, and grassroots organizations can make a big difference. People can’t access resource that they don’t know about. There is help out there, and people deserve to know about it.
We also need to address the affordability (or unaffordability) of treatment. Mental health care is expensive. For this reason, it’s system that oftentimes only the financially privileged can access. Typically therapy needs to be ongoing to be effective, and requires a masters or doctoral level clinician to be present. That’s expensive, and insurance companies are focused on profit. How we continue to pay therapists a living wage while making therapy affordable for all needs to be addressed.
In order to empower clients, the mental health care field should also be more transparent about services. Private practice clinicians are usually very transparent because their doing their own advertising and marketing. In my private practice, my website details my experience and specialties as well as the experience of my associates. But for clinicians don’t need to do their own marketing because they work for a company or don’t have the financial resources to dedicate to marketing, finding this information out is more difficult. Many people don’t know that therapists are trained differently. For instance, my work experience includes working in community mental health, several different treatment centers that offered higher levels of care, as well as private practice. But we all have different specialties. Gone are the days that therapy is the stereotypically sit and talk for 50 min with the therapist saying very little. Depending on what person is coming in to work on, different therapists work very differently, and one type of therapy or style might be a better fit.
Finally, we need to reduce barriers for those getting into the field. The cost of education is expensive. The cost of getting licensed is expensive. The time and work that goes into getting a license to practice is a barrier for many who would be fantastic clinicians. After graduating, a therapist has to be supervised for a certain amount of time before they can get licensed, and typically the pay is very low to none, or they themselves are paying to work. This system is inherently problematic and based on privilege.
The mental health care system is a topic that applies to everyone. According to Mental Health America, 46% of Americans are going to meet diagnostic criteria for a mental health condition within their lifetime. If it’s not you, it’s someone you love. It’s often at our most vulnerable that we reach out for help, and that help should be there. The time is now to make changes so we can all access the care we need.