Our nation’s mental health depends on the mental health of providers
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Over the last few years, healthcare providers have had to combat the same stressors as the rest of us, from isolation and financial stress to safety concerns around COVID, all while stepping up to support their patients however they can. In many cases, these providers have put the needs of their patients and clients before their own, causing widespread burnout.
US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently sounded the alarm that burnout is the biggest threat to healthcare. In a statement, he wrote, “The nation’s health depends on the well-being of our health workforce. Confronting the long-standing drivers of burnout among our health workers must be a top national priority.”
According to a study of 2,084 North American psychiatrists in 2020, 78 percent self-reported high levels of burnout. Given the events and continued stressors over the last two years, this number has likely increased. But how can providers be expected to treat patients with mental health challenges as they manage their own?
Demand continues to increase with no end in sight
The first cause of this burnout is sheer supply and demand, with no signs of slowing down. Simply put, there are not enough providers to treat individuals that need and seek care, adding pressure on providers to overwork themselves. This is even worse for providers who identify as BIPOC. According to the American Psychological Association, the APA, only 2 percent of psychiatrists in the US are Black, and just 4 percent of psychologists are Black. The same organization also conducted a survey of its members and found that 65 percent have no capacity for new patients and 68 percent said their wait lists were longer than ever before.
Compassion fatigue overload
Mental health providers are also facing pandemic-induced compassion fatigue, also known as secondary or vicarious trauma, which occurs when psychologists or others take on the suffering of patients who have experienced extreme stress or trauma. As the regular sounding board for patients’ struggles, compassion fatigue is essentially an occupational hazard for mental health providers, but one that’s only exacerbated by the difficulties with supply and demand. On top of the burnout driven by increased needs and a lack of providers, there can be a stigma that discourages many from seeking help themselves. Mental health professionals experience pressure to be the “healthy ones,” the healers, which may explain an APA survey that found nearly half of mental health professionals who experience a mental health disorder do not seek help.
The healthcare industry is not immune to the Great Resignation
Interestingly, it was a psychologist who predicted and coined the term “the Great Resignation.” Dr. Anthony Klotz predicted that burnout would be one of the major factors to cause workers to leave their jobs in droves, looking for companies that better suit their needs and align with their core values.
As burnout has continued to run rampant within the healthcare industry, we’ve seen The Great Resignation take hold. According to a study conducted by the American Medical Association, one in five physicians and two in five nurses intend to leave their current practice within two years. Other research shows that early retirement and career changes will also lead to significant provider shortages in the future.
As a participant of the Great Resignation myself, I get it. I was working as an Assistant Attending Psychologist at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and in addition to my regular research and patient responsibilities, I was providing Psychological First Aid to our highly distressed healthcare workers. I saw firsthand the immense need for immediate access to psychological resources at scale and I decided to leave my current position and start working in the mental health startup space to focus on developing creative solutions to increase access to care.
Solutions to address the shortage
We’ve seen some efforts to make progress to address the shortage of mental healthcare workers, which is promising, but still, not enough has been done.
Just like any profession, the healthcare industry needs to make sure it does everything possible to retain talent by making sure providers have the resources and support they need. It has to address the burnout and compassion fatigue that many providers are feeling by being adaptable and meeting them with the benefits they need. One example is providing high-quality mental healthcare benefits so they can get the help they need and want. As Murthy said, “We owe them a debt of gratitude and action,” it’s important that they feel they are appreciated for all of their hard work and dedication to helping others.
We’ve seen additional progress in promoting creative solutions with the introduction of the Access to Prescription Digital Therapeutics Act, a bipartisan bill that would establish benefit categories for digital therapeutics, and create a coverage and reimbursement framework that would allow digital healthcare access for millions of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. Another promising solution to address the shortage of providers is by empowering paraprofessionals, or coaches, with training in cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Providers have sacrificed a lot to serve their communities, it is time we recognize them both by acknowledging and thanking them for all that they do and by providing the resources and support that they need. The company that I work for recently launched a program that aims to recognize those mental health care providers that have gone above and beyond to help their patients and colleagues. This includes the practice-focused contributions they’ve made to impact specific communities and the general field of mental health. If you have a colleague that fits the bill, I urge you to nominate them. Recognition is a great place to start.