Shortages of mental health providers have Mountain West officials looking for solutions


News assignment:

Mountain West states are reporting shortages of mental health care professionals such as psychiatrists and counselors as demand for services increases. Federal data shows more than 70 percent of Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada residents live in designated mental health deficit areas – some of the highest rates in the country. The federal government estimates that the country needs thousands of mental health providers just to fill current coverage gaps.

Nationwide, the percentage of adults who received mental health care increased from 2019 to 2021which reflects rising cases of anxiety, depression and drug abuse during the pandemic.

Patrick O’Neal, a therapist and owner of a counseling service in Idaho Falls, Idaho, said many mental health providers in his area are booked months in advance.

“We are not able to treat the clients who need treatment,” O’Neal said. “At the same time, they’re getting worse while they’re waiting for that treatment to arrive.”

State officials are now looking for ways to get more suppliers to the Mountain West. In New Mexico, lawmakers want adding educational and funding opportunities to attract more counselors to the state. Colorado earmarked half a billion dollars for mental health in the past year, and Idaho school districts hire their own licensed clinicians to pick up the slack.

Another idea to increase the pool of therapists in the region is for more states to join the Counseling Compact. Currently, mental health professionals licensed in one state often struggle with the ability to practice in other states because supervision, testing, and cost requirements differ depending on where you live. For counselors like O’Neal in eastern Idaho — a region where rural residents of Wyoming, Montana and Utah all travel for certain care and amenities — it’s a challenging situation.

“So people come to this part of Idaho, and they want mental health services, too,” he said. “But at the same time, if I’m not licensed in that state, or if they live in another state, I can’t treat them.”

This is true for other areas in the region where state lines cut through larger communities — these include Lake Tahoe, the Four Corners region, the greater Boise area and the northern Front Range in Colorado and Wyoming. This also affects those seeking telehealth, which is becoming more and more popular.

The counseling agreement, which has not yet taken effect, allows those licensed in one compact state to practice in other compact states. Colorado and Utah are already part of the group, and an account making its way through Wyoming’s legislature would make it the third Mountain West state to join.

If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado , KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations throughout the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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