Mental health providers are in high demand, and many say they can’t keep up. Psychologists and psychiatrists are turning people away, closing their waiting lists and worrying that things are going to get worse.
CONTENT WARNING: This story discusses suicide, if you’re in distress please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Kriti Gupta has been seeking help from mental health professionals in Australia for ten years. It’s a system she knows very well. But the current demand and waiting times are unlike anything she’s ever seen before.
“I’ve been trying to find a psychiatrist on-and-off for about a year, calling places across Sydney and Brisbane, but you kind of give up in between,” the 25-year-old told The Feed.
Kriti, who has anxiety and depression, was looking to get her medication reevaluated. Initially, she was asking for an appointment, now she’s just hoping to be put on a waiting list.
“With depression, it's hard to keep up the momentum of trying to help yourself,” she said. “It feels like you're trying so hard to help yourself but the system isn't letting you.”
Her experience isn’t unique. A few years ago, Oscar* had a one-off appointment with a psychologist which he booked a few weeks in advance. This time around, he waited three months.
His first appointment left him hopeful that he could get a handle on his mental health after a year made difficult by the pandemic and a redundancy. Now he’ll be waiting two months for the follow-up.
“I'm an understanding person, I know a lot of people are experiencing mental health issues, but it was pretty disheartening,” said the 28-year old from western Sydney.
It’s a problem plaguing many Australian cities which have battled COVID outbreaks throughout the year. In Melbourne, Steve has been supporting his wife who suffers from complex mental health issues which require highly controlled medications.
“She couldn’t get an appointment to see a psychiatrist until June 2022,” Steve told The Feed.
“To make the situation worse, she had already used all her medications and must see [a psychiatrist] to have the prescription renewed.”
As she withdrew from her medication, she became manic, aggressive, depressed and had suicidal ideations.
Steve said the best advice they received was to have her admitted to a psychiatric ward, in order to see a psychiatrist sooner.
'We are turning people away'
Jeremy Neumann had worked in mental health organisations for nine years before he decided to open up a private practice in Brighton, Victoria. He was told by others in the industry it would take a year or two to build up his practice.
But in a matter of months, he was fully booked. Even after moving from part-time to full-time hours, he still has a waiting list of three months, though it would be longer if he didn’t cap it off.
"After the three-month mark, we start referring elsewhere," said Mr Neumann.
“I'm considering trying to recruit others, mental health social workers and psychologists to help meet the demand."
Since opening in July this year, Mr Neumann noticed his new practice taking more and more calls as the persisting impact of the pandemic and the holiday season overlapped. He cites the uncertainty of COVID and lifting lockdowns as the reasons behind the increased feelings of anxiety.
“I think it's been incredibly overwhelming for some people to reintegrate. I think it's just really exhausting people.”
He said colleagues and peers are putting hardlines on work hours as the industry shares the same exhaustion felt by the wider community. He said the effects of a slammed public mental health system is also rippling down to services like his.
“There's such high demand, the public system is currently only seeing the really high-risk clients. Everyone else is getting pushed into the community,” said Mr Neumann.
“So private providers are expected to then see higher-risk clients they wouldn’t usually be seeing.”
With more people waiting long periods to seek professional help, Mr Neumann fears the long wait time could ingrain new illnesses as early intervention is delayed.
“If they're not getting the support there can be significant deterioration in their mental health or worse."
Australians are experiencing deteriorating mental health as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A survey conducted earlier this year found that 3.4 million adults reported seeing a health professional for their mental health within the past year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
In recent months, the Federal Government has provided $10.6 million in funding to make mental health services more accessible and available for people across ten locations in NSW. Additional services were also offered to Geelong in regional Victoria and in Canberra ahead of the holiday period.
This week, the Victorian government announced it will spend $41 million to expand its mental health workforce after the royal commission released a report on the state's mental health system.
The report has found that the workforce in the sector to be chronically overstretched, with thousands of people missing out on care every year. The new funding is expected to deliver over 350 workers by next year to support the sector.
Frankie*, a social worker at one of the new clinics in NSW, said while her team has seen the increased demand through other services they also work with, they’re still struggling to get people through the doors of the pop-up clinic.
The service offers support for general pandemic anxiety, mental health counselling and referrals to other support services related to housing, relationships and financial hardship.
“The government realised that there was a gap and that there is a shortage and there are large waitlists,” said Frankie.
“They've created services like this one, but they're just not doing a great job of putting us out there.. no one knows about us,” said Frankie.
Kriti said while there has been a successful push to get large numbers of people coming forward to seek help, not enough has been done to direct them to the right places or help them navigate the system.
"Everyone's rushing to get help, but people are asking me 'am I paying the right money, is this the right person for me?'" said Kriti.
Even with a Medicare rebate, those booking a private mental health professional must be able to pay the gap, she added.
'Mental health social workers aren't promoted enough'
Many first-time clients are presenting with a general agitation or uncertainty, Julianne Whyte, a social worker and the director of the Australian Association of Social Workers told The Feed. More serious cases show signs of underlying depression, anxiety and eating disorders.
She said the demand has more than doubled in the past year or two, with a considerable number of clients in regional areas across New South Wales and Victoria.
Despite the surge, her waitlist for offering mental health services is stable at about five or six weeks.
“I think part of the problem is that we don’t promote mental health social workers enough,” said Ms Whyte, who adds that mental health social workers and occupational therapists can also be rebated under the Mental Health Care Plan.
She said a problem within Australia's system is that there isn't a clear enough separation between mental health support and mental illness.
"I'm not saying they're less urgent, or less important, but they can be dealt with [with a social worker]. You don't need a psychiatrist," said Ms Whyte.
Mr Neumann and social worker Suzanne Sprague agree, adding that the reliance on psychologists for counselling, when specialised social workers may have similar training, can also add unnecessary pressure.
"I don't think the general public is aware of that. So when people are seeking treatment, they might actually be missing out on some people who actually are already able to see them who may not have a full waiting list," said Ms Sprague.
*Names have been changed for anonymity.
If this story has brought up anything for you, you can give Lifeline a call on 13 11 14. You can also call Headspace on 1800 650 890 or the Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.
If you or someone you know is in immediate crisis, please call police and ambulance on 000.