October 5, 2022

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Thousands of Australians needing qualified mental health support are being forced to wait months to see a psychologist as demand for professional help far outstrips the available services.

A nationwide shortage of psychologists has emerged since the COVID-19 pandemic, creating what many in the industry are referring to as a “mental health crisis”.

The situation is being worsened further by rising living costs in 2022, which is pushing more and more people to seek the limited amount of bulk-billed psychology services on offer.

Many Australians are having to wait months to get an appointment with a pyschologist. (Paul Harris/The Age)

Demand for appointments at The Talk Shop, Victoria’s largest private psychology practice offering bulk-billed appointments, is at an all-time high according to its founder and CEO Matthew Vella.

Patients have to join a long waitlist before being able to be scheduled for an appointment, whether it be by telehealth or at one of the five Melbourne clinics.

“Our waiting list for bulk-billed appointments has grown continuously since the start of COVID and continues to grow,” he said.

“We don’t see it reducing anytime soon.”

With so many people seeking professional support for their mental health, private psychology clinics are also having to tell people they cannot get short-term help and must go on a waitlist.

More than two thirds of the 11,000 Australians surveyed for the June Australian Healthcare Index figures reported having waited more than 12 weeks to receive mental health care.

Meanwhile, one third of psychologists said they were unable to take on new clients in a survey done by the Australian Psychology Society (APS) in February.

The figure marked an increase on the one in five psychologists who reported being in the same situation in June last year, and a huge jump on the only one per cent of psychologists said they could not take on new clients before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to APS research.

Naomi Malone’s psychology clinic in central Victoria, A Life Simply Lived, had a waitlist of more than 150 people last year before she rapidly expanded her team to ensure people weren’t going without help.

“I’ve added about 10 to 12 team members in the last year,” she said.

“I don’t like waitlists.”

Telehealth allows people in regional areas to connect with specialists online. (A Current Affair)

The clinic also goes to lengths to ensure clients are able to use telehealth for appointments so that clients avoid going on waitlists, with two of its staff members located in Melbourne.

“We’re trying to think outside the box as much as we possibly can to help people access services that they need,” Malone said.

She said most clients preferred face-to-face sessions because many struggled to find privacy at home to have a confidential video call, while others had issues with internet connectivity.

To stop telehealth being a barrier to providing sessions Malone’s team organise for clients to come into the clinic and use a room, the internet and a computer to have their telehealth call.

“We’re providing everything as we usually would, except the clinician is somewhere else.”

But hiring more staff is not easy at most clinics due to the nationwide shortage of psychologists.

Vella said his team was “constantly seeking to shorten the time clients spend in the waiting list” amid the “ongoing mental health crisis”, with recruiting more psychologists being the main agenda item at every management meeting.

“We have a shortage of registered psychologists in Victoria and the current high demand is unlikely to diminish anytime soon,” he said.

Couple discussing separation and divorce mediation
Demand for psychological help has increased significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Call for help to boost the workforce

The APS has been calling for the Federal Government’s help to boost the psychology workforce and get more psychologists graduating since the effects of COVID-19 began to hit.

“Psychologists have been warning for a long time that the barriers to care are far too high, and the psychology workforce is simply not supported well enough to meet demand,” APS CEO Dr Zena Burgess said.

Vella said he also thought more graduates from universities were needed, as well as easier pathways for overseas qualified psychologists to have their qualifications recognised in Australia.

Psychologists have further agreed that bulk-billing rebates are not enough to get enough clinicians offering bulk-billed appointments.

Vella said financial support from the government was certainly limiting the number of bulk-billed appointments The Talk Shop’s could offer.

“Medicare bulk-billing rates have not kept up with rising costs,” he said.

“When we started in 2013 Medicare rates were around 5 per cent lower than the rates we are paid today, but costs have increased significantly more than that over those nine years.

“This had enabled all our daytime weekday appointments to be bulk-billed back then, but doing this is no longer viable.”

Malone also said bulk-billing all appointments was not sustainable for clinics.

She said that with all the work and costs required outside of actual sessions with clients, she had calculated that if her clinic completely bulk-bulled she would be working for around $12 an hour.

“We would all love to be able to bulk bill if we could.

“It’s just not sustainable.”

To increase the amount of bulk-billed appointments available, Vella said government changes should be made to allow provisional psychologist to bulk-bill their appointments.

Provisional psychologist have completed at least four years of psychological study but have not completed a masters degree in psychology.

The Australian Association of Psychologists wrote to the Victorian and Federal Governments last month calling for the same change in Victoria to assist the huge demand for mental health care.

It means patients can access many Medicare services over the phone.
Psychologists say bulk-billing rebates are not enough to get enough clinicians offering bulk-billed appointments. (iStock)

‘It won’t get better itself’

After what they have seen since the COVID-19 pandemic began, psychologists are in agreement that the increased demand for their services is not going to go away anytime soon.

“We haven’t seen the full ripple effects from COVID yet,” Malone said.

“I think we’re just sort of starting to sort of see them.

“Demand for our services will be relatively high for for quite some time.”

“The effects of the pandemic on the mental health of our nation will continue for years to come,” Dr Burgess agreed.

A spokesperson from the federal Department of Health told 9News.com.au that “the Australian Government is committed to working closely with the mental health sector…to improve access to appropriate services and to address workforce issues at a national level”.

The spokesperson said the fees and rebate amounts offered by Medicare are due to be reevaluated by the end of the year, which will “provide an opportunity to examine the rebate amounts in the context of looking at patient outcomes and access to mental health care”.

“The Better Access evaluation also provides scope to assess eligible providers and the workforce needed to meet demand for mental health care, which has been exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the spokesperson said.

“The Government is working to implement the National Pathways to Practice Program Pilot for nursing and allied health students and graduates. This includes 75 internships for provisional psychologists in the primary care sector and up to 150 free Psychology Board of Australia endorsed supervisor training sessions.

The Government is also providing up to 700 student and up to 90 graduate placements for professions, including psychology, through the headspace Early Career Program.”

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