Not enough psychologists to deal with rising mental health needs

By Marena Mane

A survey of 300 clinical psychologists has shown that the demand for their services is significantly outstripping supply, with more than half reported having to turn away 10 plus families every month.

Half have completely abandoned offering a waiting list, due to fears people with serious illnesses could be lost in the system.

Clinical psychologist and a member of the New Zealand Psychologists Board, Dr Ainsleigh Cribb-Su'a says she is not surprised by the results.

“Psychologists I know working in the private sector have been inundated with high demand, and the demand is generally for psychological therapies and psychologists. It well outstrips the current supply.”

Dr Cribb-Su’a says the barriers she sees are psychologists leaving district health boards to work in private practices, so depleting psychological services offered by the DHB mental health services, and it can be hard to afford to see psychologists in private practices.

“It also means the training opportunities for intern psychologists, alongside district health board psychologists, is also drying up, and even in primary care, which is for when individuals are experiencing mild to moderate mental distress, there's not enough psychologists and therapists, and whānau are waiting sometimes up to 12 weeks or so, just for a physician.”

How are Māori affected?

According to Dr. Cribb-Su'a, Māori has a considerably higher rate of mental illness than any other ethnic group, and they tend to wait longer to see a doctor, making the problem more complicated and at times even worse.

“This makes a 12 week wait time to see someone for a first appointment just intolerable for our whānau, this crisis, and this dilemma has a significant impact on our whānau Māori.”

Only a few new training institutions have been established since the publishing of He Ara Oranga; A report of the government inquiry into mental health, which expressly urged an increase in the psychological workforce.

Dr Cribb-Su’a says it is nowhere near the number required to meet the demand, and incentives are needed so psychologists stay working for DHBs.

“I'm well aware of the long history of inadequate working circumstances for psychologists working within the DHB. That doesn't just stop at the diminished level of pay that is experienced by psychologists within the DHBs. There are lots of other factors that play into that. So it's quite a systemic issue.”

What is the solution?

Dr Cribb-Su'a points out resources are limited when it comes to training competent mental health practitioners such as psychologists, so investing in community and hapū-driven initiatives would be a good place to start because "no one cares for their own like their own."

“I'm really hopeful about the restructure of the Ministry of Health, with the new Health Authority and the Māori Health Authority very specifically. I'm really hoping as a result of this, we might be able to have a more strategic and systemic way of looking at the mental health crisis in Aotearoa.”