Before the COVID-19 pandemic, new patients at Inova Health System in Virginia often faced a one- or two-week waiting list to see a therapist. Now the wait is a month and a half — and three months for a psychiatrist.

“Most mental health care providers have really long waitlists; a lot of them aren’t even adding patients,” says Rachel Noble, a licensed therapist and director of therapeutic programs and women’s behavioral health at Inova. “Everyone is having to tell people no.”

More people seeking help

The pressures of the pandemic — from social isolation to job loss to grief — are increasing the need for mental health services, Noble believes. “There’s a real mental health crisis going on,” she says. “Substance abuse clinics are full and turning people away. Calls to suicide hotlines have never been higher.”

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The number of people in the U.S. reporting symptoms of depression from April through June 2020 increased fourfold over the same period in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Three times as many Americans reported symptoms of anxiety disorder in that same period. And in a 2020 Southern Cross University survey, an astounding 98 percent of respondents said that COVID-19 had affected their mental health.

“We’ve always had a shortage of mental health providers, and the pandemic has made it that much worse,” says Lynn Linde, a counselor and chief knowledge and learning officer at the American Counseling Association (ACA).

Psychologists nationwide are receiving more referrals, seeing more patients and experiencing fewer cancellations, according to a 2020 survey conducted last fall by the American Psychological Association (APA). What’s more, 74 percent of psychologists said they were treating more patients for anxiety disorder than before the pandemic, with 30 percent unable to meet the demand. The situation is more severe outside of major urban areas. Even before COVID-19, data showed a “severe shortage of mental health providers in rural communities,” the ACA states.

Teletherapy’s role

Teletherapy has been a way to widen access to mental health professionals. Before COVID-19, roughly 4 percent of psychiatrists saw half or more of their patients online, an APA survey found. A few months into the pandemic, though, the number jumped to 90 percent. Teletherapy, however, doesn’t address the problem of shortages. Many practitioners have used virtual sessions to maintain their existing caseloads, not to expand them.

How to find help

Don’t give up. You can find help. “It may not look like it did before the pandemic, but help is there,” Noble says. Consider these steps if you’re struggling to find a mental health professional.

Add your name to a waiting list. If you’re offered a spot on a list, take it. Along with reserving your place in line, you may get a short-term mood boost. “There’s a well-understood phenomenon in therapy that once someone books an appointment, they feel better,” Noble says. “They know help is coming, and it helps them calm down.” Also ask to be placed on a cancellation list so that if a patient cancels an appointment, you can be offered the spot.

Join an online support group. Many large mental-health-care systems offer online groups that are often easier to join than one-on-one counseling sessions. The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers support groups as well as a helpline and content on mental health issues. “This is a great resource for individuals suffering from a mental illness, or families trying to figure out how to support a loved one who’s struggling,” Noble says. Substance abuse organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon also offer online support groups.

Call your primary care physician. If you’re struggling with a low mood, anxiety, sleep trouble or appetite issues, your primary care doctor may be able to help, even before you talk with a therapist, Noble says. Your doc may also have connections to help you get an appointment with a mental health professional.

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Find therapeutic alternatives. Mental health providers aren’t the only sources of comfort and guidance. Churches and pastors can offer emotional support. If your children are struggling, contact their school counselor. “They often offer a wealth of resources and knowledge about how to manage little guys and teens,” Noble says. Or simply talk with a trusted friend. “Sharing your fears can help them feel less like a heavy weight.”

Consider a mobile crisis unit. If a loved one is experiencing a psychiatric emergency — from suicide threats to manic behavior — some counties offer a mobile crisis unit that will send a psychiatrist or social worker to the home.

Turn to your employer. Some companies offer employee assistance programs that include mental-health care. This typically covers some free sessions with a licensed therapist, followed by a referral to an outside provider.

Call the federal mental health helpline. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a free 24-hour helpline (the Treatment Referral Routing Service) offering information on support groups, treatment options and other assistance: 800-662-HELP (4357).

If it’s an emergency, get immediate help. If you or someone you care about is considering suicide, call the free 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-TALK (8255), or text the word “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 to speak with someone who can offer confidential support and assist you in a crisis.


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