Southwest Michigan faces mental health professionals shortage as pandemic amplifies need for their services

Mental health needs increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a January 2021 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 41% of American adults were experiencing anxiety and/or depression, suicide rates increased during 2020, and the American Psychological Association has reported increased rates of PTSD and attention difficulties in those who had been hospitalized due to COVID-19. 

The U.S. had a mental health professional shortage before the pandemic, and Southwest Michigan was no exception. Every county in Southwest Michigan had been designated as a mental health professionals shortage area by the Healthcare Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Rural areas, like the majority of Southwest Michigan counties, are more likely to have a mental health professionals shortage than urban areas. However, it is not uncommon for there to be shortages in areas with high poverty rates, as is the case for Kalamazoo County.

Julie Carbajal, behavioral therapist and owner of Kalamazoo ACT Psychotherapy Services, attests to the increased mental health services needs and challenges with finding appropriate care.

“I’ve seen a lot of people with issues like PTSD or OCD experience an increase in symptoms due to the stress they’re facing during the pandemic,” Carbajal said. “Unfortunately, getting in to see a therapist who has specialized training in those areas, who meets all the clients’ needs as far as insurance availability, and so on, is really hard right now. There just aren’t enough providers in this area, especially for people who can’t afford to pay out of pocket.” 

Financing mental health services can be difficult. People with insurance generally have to stay within a network of providers, (which can include private offices, teaching clinics, Community Mental Health agencies, Indian Health Service agencies, and Federally Qualified Health Centers) otherwise visits will not be covered in full.

Many organizations provide sliding scale services or participate in the Open Path Collective, a nonprofit whose members commit to providing some low fee psychotherapy for those in need. The pandemic has prompted these organizations to at least partially use telehealth to provide outpatient care. National companies such as Amwell, Teladoc, NOCD, Cerebral, and MDLIVE provide mental health telehealth services in Michigan as well.

Carbajal recommends seeking care outside of Southwest Michigan, if necessary. “I recommend people ask their health care providers and insurance companies for specific referrals. If no one is available in the area to meet their needs, I recommend that people try to be flexible with telehealth options right now and look for providers outside of their immediate area.”

Cortney Jebelian is a writer for Watershed Voice and a licensed professional counselor in Kalamazoo, Michigan.