Better public policies can help address the challenges. We encourage policymakers to focus on 4 key areas.
Demand for mental health care services is high and rising.
More than 1 in 3 people live in an area with a shortage of mental health professionals. Communities of color and people in lower-income areas are most affected. People who live in economically stressed cities and rural areas face the greatest challenges accessing care.
Addressing this crisis requires growing our mental health workforce. To do that, health care stakeholders and policymakers must come together to improve how our country recruits, trains, licenses, and places mental health professionals.
Federal and state governments should engage health care organizations, academic institutions, and community leaders to develop and expand the mental health workforce. Working together, we can find solutions that equitably serve all communities.
At Kaiser Permanente, we recommend 4 key focus areas for policymakers:
As the mental health care workforce grows, it’s vital that health care organizations and advocates ensure equitable access to care. This can’t be achieved if too many clinicians pursue private practice with an intent to serve primarily people who can afford to pay out of pocket.
To promote equitable access, policymakers must enable and support organizations serving diverse populations, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and commercially insured patients, in hiring and retaining therapists.
We also must reduce the unnecessary challenges many new graduates face on the path to licensure. Many find it difficult to complete their supervised hours.
For example, in several states, aspiring mental health professionals need over 4,000 hours of supervised work experience after graduating to receive their license to practice. That amounts to 2 years of full-time work. Graduates also often aren’t paid well for these hours — some even have to pay for their supervision. And, that’s if they can find supervision opportunities, which are not widely available. This barrier keeps many people from entering the profession or pursuing their license, especially those with lower incomes and fewer resources.
A promising approach adopted by some states involves granting provisional licenses to new graduates after they pass their exams. These licenses enable new clinicians to start providing care under the supervision of experienced licensed professionals.
We endorse this approach. It supports new professionals and ensures patients receive high-quality health care. We recommend more states consider this approach to quickly expand the mental health workforce.
In addition to growing the workforce, we need to ensure services are widely accessible. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the power of telehealth to provide effective access to all kinds of health services, but particularly mental health services. More can be done to promote it.
At Kaiser Permanente, both patients and clinicians tell us they often find telehealth sessions more convenient and comfortable. We see this in our data: Few patients cancel or miss their phone and video appointments.
Recent studies, including one from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, show the effectiveness of telehealth for treating people who have substance use and mental health disorders.
It’s essential to keep improving and expanding telehealth, especially for people who could benefit most from it. A key role for policymakers is ensuring everyone has internet access, especially in areas with a shortage of mental health workers.
Policymakers should also change rules, like requiring in-person visits, that unnecessarily limit the use of telehealth. Supporting the use of telehealth across state lines to expand coverage will also help bring care to people in rural and underserved areas.
Kaiser Permanente is investing in workforce development to serve our members and communities. Here are a few ways:
To move beyond the mental health professional shortage, health care leaders and policymakers must think creatively and work together. The challenges we face as a country are significant and will only grow if we don’t address them now.
This challenge, however, is also an opportunity. Investing in the mental health workforce is not just about filling positions. It’s about creating meaningful job opportunities that serve a crucial role in our communities. These are exactly the kinds of investments the government and health care organizations should be looking to make. They provide purposeful work and address a vital community need.
By building on emerging programs, making strategic investments, and fostering collaboration, our country can transform this period of need into an era of wellness — one that benefits millions of Americans.