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Mental health provider shortages have Mountain West officials searching for solutions

Psychotherapist writing notes, assessing patient's health and giving diagnosis to man sitting on couch during counseling session , panorama, free space.
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Psychotherapist writing notes, assessing patient's health and giving diagnosis to man sitting on couch during counseling session , panorama, free space.

Mountain West states are reporting shortages of mental health care professionals such as psychiatrists and counselors as demand for services is on the rise. Federal data shows more than 70% of Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada residents live in designated mental health shortage areas – among the highest rates in the country. The federal government estimates that the country needs thousands of mental health providers just to fill current coverage gaps.

Nationwide, the percentage of adults who received mental health care increased from 2019 to 2021, reflecting rising instances of anxiety, depression and substance abuse during the pandemic.

Patrick O’Neal, a therapist and owner of a counseling service in Idaho Falls, Idaho, said many mental health providers in his area are booked months in advance.

“We're not able to treat the clients that need treatment,” O’Neal said. “At the same time, they're getting worse while they're waiting for that treatment to arrive.”

State officials are now looking for ways to get more providers to the Mountain West. In New Mexico, legislators want to add educational and funding opportunities to attract more counselors to the state. Colorado earmarked half a billion dollars for mental health in recent years, and Idaho school districts are hiring their own licensed clinicians to pick up the slack.

Another idea to increase the pool of therapists in the region is for more states to join the Counseling Compact. Currently, mental health professionals that get licensed in one state often have a hard time gaining the ability to practice in other states because supervision, testing and cost requirements are different depending on where you reside. For counselors like O’Neal in eastern Idaho – a region where rural residents from Wyoming, Montana and Utah all travel to for certain care and amenities – that’s a challenging situation.

“So people are coming to this part of Idaho, and they also want mental health services,” he said. “But at the same time, if I am not licensed in that state, or if they reside in a different state, I can't treat them.”

This is true for other areas in the region where state borders slice through larger communities – that includes Lake Tahoe, the Four Corners region, the greater Boise area and the northern Front Range in Colorado and Wyoming. It also affects those seeking telehealth, which is becoming increasingly popular.

The Counseling Compact, which hasn’t gone into effect yet, allows those with a license in one compact state to practice in other compact states. Colorado and Utah are already a part of the group, and a bill making its way through Wyoming’s legislature would make it the third Mountain West state to join.

If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2023 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Will Walkey