The Psychiatrist Shortage Is Bad News For Addiction Treatment

By Victoria Kim 04/05/17

Seventy-seven percent of US counties are underserved, and the average wait time to meet with a psychiatrist is 25 days.

A man talkin to his psychiatrist during a session.

While inpatient and outpatient programs decline across the United States, so are the number of psychiatrists qualified to address issues of mental health or substance use disorder.

A report issued last month by the National Council for Behavioral Health, which represents nearly 3,000 mental health and addiction treatment organizations, showed that there’s a shortage of psychiatrists in the U.S.

Seventy-seven percent of counties are underserved, and the average wait time to meet with a psychiatrist is 25 days, according to the report.

“In every town in America, we see the unmet need—young pregnant women with untreated addiction living on the streets; older adults who are isolated, anxious, and at risk for suicide; men and women with mental illnesses released from jails without housing or access to care,” said Linda Rosenberg, CEO and president of the National Council. 

Not only is there a shortage, but the number of psychiatrists is declining—it went down 10% from 2003 to 2013. Currently there are over 45,500 of them in the workforce.

The National Council offers some recommendations to reverse the trend, like increasing the use of “telepsychiatry” to reach more people who may live too far to make regular appointments. 

“At a time when we are coping with the twin problems of a rising suicide rate and an out-of-control opioid addiction epidemic, we must act now,” said Dr. Joe Parks, medical director of the National Council.

The report also talks about embracing a holistic approach to health care, by emphasizing the importance of caring for both physical and mental health together. At a federal level, the report suggests that lawmakers promote policies that increase access to treatment—like Medicaid expansion—not reduce it.  

Psychiatry plays a significant role in addiction treatment. The Fix’s John Lavitt spoke with Dr. Stuart Gitlow, a general, forensic and addiction psychiatrist and former president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)—who said psychiatry is “an essential component” of addiction treatment.

After all, it’s the “study of the mind and addictive disease is based in the mind,” said Gitlow. 

The Fix contributor, Charlotte Grey, shared her experience as a patient seeking recovery from substance use disorder as it relates to psychiatry—and how it helped her on her “path to emotional and spiritual freedom.”

“Proper psychiatric diagnosis and treatment has allowed me to be present and available to others,” she wrote in a personal essay. “I’ve found deeper healing in other areas of my life through the 12 steps because I cleared away the damage that was obscuring the light from entering my life.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr