Today I got on the phone and made a list of five parents to call back and tell them I don’t have availability to see their kids for therapy. I almost pray that I get a voicemail because this way, I won’t have to hear the disappointed sigh or the heartbreaking story of the family I so badly want to help, but I just don’t have the hours in the day. Even worse, I don’t have many options for referrals that are taking on new clients. I wish I could say this is a rare occurrence, but it isn’t. Every week I block out time to make these depressing phone calls. So what the heck is going on? Why is it so hard to find a therapist for your kid?
In 2021, The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry stated the children’s mental health crisis in America has become so extreme they have declared it a national emergency. Compared to numbers listed in 2019, suicide attempts by teen girls have risen 51%, and ER visits due to mental health concerns have risen 24% in children ages 3-10. We are seeing younger and younger children admitted to inpatient facilities, and the demand for psychiatric medications has increased to the point where there are still national shortages.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the pandemic has drastically affected children’s mental health. We can all understand that social isolation, anxiety, and fear played a role in this. We can also acknowledge that parents were overworked and under-supported during this time, and those stresses trickled down to children. Providing quality mental health services during this time was extremely challenging. If I could typically play and engage with a child over art materials or games, I now had to keep their attention on a screen for 50 minutes. Some kids were burnt out on Zoom calls from school and couldn’t handle another session. During the peak of covid, I lost over 50% of my caseload of children.
And let’s talk about compensation from insurance companies during covid. Many insurance companies refused to cover telemedicine, but we didn’t find that out until we submitted the claims. Some companies allowed time-limited services or compensated at a much lower rate. Therapists who were also parents during this time were doing virtual sessions, homeschooling, and child care. Psychotherapy is a female-dominated profession, and we know that women left the workforce at alarming rates during COVID. Do you see where I am going with this? We lost a lot of therapists during COVID, particularly child therapists.
Flash forward to when people started to feel comfortable going back in public; the phone was ringing off the hook. Everyone wanted in-person services, and the demand grew, but the number of therapists dwindled. Our job was already challenging, but COVID offered new and different challenges. Many therapists had given up their offices or had become comfortable offering services from home, so they stopped seeing children. Their office costs decreased, and they had a flexible schedule for the first time in their career.
So here we are at a scary intersection where pediatric mental illness rates are skyrocketing, and therapists are leaving the field at an alarming rate. Parents are stressed out, and in desperate need of help, yet we don’t have enough professionals to meet the demand. My best suggestion to parents is to get on multiple wait lists. Call, email, or follow up if you haven’t heard back from someone. Be willing to drive across town or find a virtual therapist until you can get someone in person. And in terms of the bigger picture, vote, advocate, and seek change at the federal and state level with funding and incentives to retain mental health providers in the workforce.