FEATURE — At the beginning of February, Mind Matters ran an article to let readers know what happens if you go to the hospital for a mental breakdown. We outlined the protocol of what typically happens. As a result, many readers commented both on the article itself and social media.
Citing personal experiences, these comments raised concerns regarding the role of the emergency rooms and the shortage of beds available for in-patient treatments, as well as shortage of psychiatrists available in Southern Utah.
These concerns prompted Mind Matters to follow up on the issue, and indeed it would appear that while mental illness is a growing issue, resources are lagging behind.
By the numbers
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in six Americans live with a mental illness on a daily basis. In the last seven years, emergency room visits for suicidal thoughts have more than doubled. Suicides among the U.S. population has risen 24 percent over the last 15 years, particularly among teenagers. In Utah, suicide is the leading cause of death among individuals ages 10-24 and the second highest cause of death among individuals ages 24-44.
Despite the rising statistics in mental illness, there is an increasing shortage of psychiatrists nationwide. According to PsychatricNews, roughly 77 percent of U.S. counties are currently underserved, and in Utah, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports there are six psychiatrists for every 100,000 children. The shortages result in long waiting periods, shorter sessions and more professionals hitting burnout sooner.
Why is there a mental health crisis?
Dr. Ryan Williams, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with the Southwest Behavioral Health Center in Southern Utah, explained that mental illness is becoming as common as regular physical ailments. Williams said that this phenomenon is attributed to many different factors and is a complex issue.
Parents are working more hours today than they have in the past. As a result, they are more exhausted when they go home to their children. The average screen time has increased dramatically as technology becomes more prevalent in society. Family relationships overall have deteriorated. Drug usage, addictions and poverty levels have increased, and as a result, children get caught in this never ending cycle that is hard to break out of.
Unfortunately, when shortages of any kind occur, the first to be hit are those who live in rural communities such as those found in Southern Utah, especially those residents who lack adequate insurance to cover the costs of seeing a psychiatrist.
As a result, many individuals put off seeking help while symptoms are mild until their mental illness becomes very severe and reaches a breaking point.
Another factor is the time and effort that is put into treating a mental illness. Whereas a physical ailment, such as a broken bone, can easily be discerned and a solution provided quickly, a mental illness is not so easily “fixed.”
“Oftimes when a patient seeks help from a mental health specialist, the underlying issue or problem is not obvious,” Williams said. “A patient can’t go see a specialist and find a cure in one appointment. The treatment, regardless of whether or not medication is involved, often results in multiple sessions of therapy to find root of the issue as well as provide means for the patient to work through it successfully.”
While a family practitioner clinic may see a patient every 15 minutes, allowing their office the ability to meet the needs of a rather large amount of individuals, a mental health specialist is different. Longer appointments equal fewer patients over longer periods of time in order to adequately ensure the person is able to be treated successfully.
Collaboration may be key to addressing the mental health crisis
Due to the lack of access to mental health specialists, many individuals are turning to their primary care physicians, therapists or counselors for help. As a result, many of these professionals are turning to psychiatrists for assistance, thereby changing the traditional role of psychiatrist, especially in rural communities.
“When I first started my career,” Williams said, “the majority of my work consisted of therapy. Now I collaborate with counselors and therapists – focusing mainly on the medication while they focus on the therapy.”
As the shortage in mental health specialists is projected to only get worse, the best solution to address the crisis is to encourage everyone in the community to work together in a collaborative effort, Williams said.
He used the examples of police helping with crime, parents raising their children and teachers educating them – among other examples – to say that if everyone works together to create a safer community and children can grow up in compassionate, respectful environments where they are taught to reach out to those in need, the real issues of mental health care can be addressed to the fullest extent.