It is an irony that troubles health care providers and policymakers nationwide: Even as public awareness of mental illness increases, a shortage of psychiatrists worsens.
In vast swaths of America, patients face lengthy drives to reach the nearest psychiatrist, if they can even find one willing to see them. Some states are promoting wider use of long-distance telepsychiatry to fill the gaps in care. In Texas, which faces a severe shortage, lawmakers recently voted to pay the student loans of psychiatrists willing to work in underserved areas. A bill in Congress would forgive student loans for child psychiatrists.
Even with such efforts, problems are likely to persist. A recent survey by the Association of American Medical Colleges found that 59 percent of psychiatrists are 55 or older, the fourth oldest of 41 medical specialties, signaling that many may soon be retiring or reducing their workload.
Charles Ingoglia, a vice president of the National Council for Behavioral Health, helps coordinate a network of 2,300 not-for-profit clinics nationwide that provide mental health services.
"I'm not aware of any part of the country where it is easy for our members to find psychiatrists," he said.
Statistics help tell the story. According to the American Medical Association, the total number of physicians in the U.S. increased by 45 percent from 1995 to 2013, while the number of adult and child psychiatrists rose by only 12 percent, from 43,640 to 49,079. During that span, the U.S. population increased by about 37 percent; meanwhile, millions more Americans have become eligible for mental health coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
Federal health authorities have designated about 4,000 areas in the U.S. as having a shortage of mental health professionals — areas with more than 30,000 people per psychiatrist.