Mental health provider crisis
Coeur d'Alene School District mental health coordinator Keith Orchard shoots hoops with a student at Lakes Middle School in June 2021. North Idaho is experiencing a shortage of mental health professionals as it simultaneously experiences a growing need for services.
Photo courtesy of the Coeur d'Alene School District
Staff Writer | May 11, 2022 1:08 AM
When someone has a mental or emotional break, mental health professionals are available to help.
But just as the region is experiencing an insatiable demand for housing with limited supply, it is also experiencing a shortage of mental health professionals to provide services so desperately needed in a post-pandemic, politically-charged climate.
"This has never been like this, ever," Heritage Health CEO Mike Baker said Tuesday. "We are facing this crisis. We have so many people we just can’t get to, whether it's at Heritage Health or any other place that’s offering therapy."
Heritage Health has 21 therapists in its Family Support Services across four locations, with a need for about eight more. Its Restored Paths program needs about six more counselors to increase the staffing from the 14 counselors across three locations. Entry-level mental health therapists range in salary from $27.39 to $38.99, plus benefits including insurance, retirement plans, paid time off and continuing education.
Despite the attractive perks and fulfilling employment, potential hires in the applicant pool aren't biting.
"We need help," Baker said. "We have a solid business model, we’ve got all these things, we’re struggling to find staff to do this work."
This is on top of the many who have left the field to work elsewhere.
"People are checking out of the mental health fields faster than ever before,” Baker said. "People are not nice. It’s divisive. They're like, 'I can't stay in this career.'"
Telehealth has pulled some people away since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Baker said.
"In the mental health field, there are people leaving group practice because they can do telehealth in their pajamas. They make a little less, but it's easy," he said. "It's leaving people in true crisis. It’s leaving a gap."
The pandemic also raised awareness about self-care, which even health care professionals need sometimes.
"We need to take care of ourselves, or we’re not going to be able to help others,” Baker said.
In the Coeur d'Alene School District, two school psychologists are needed, as well as counselors and a board-certified behavior analyst.
Keith Orchard, mental health coordinator for the district, works with students on a daily basis and sees the need for students to have resources when they are are struggling.
"I think the world is as stressful as maybe it’s ever been," he said. "Things move fast, information comes fast. With social media, and the constant news cycle and information stream, we can’t even get away."
From news to social media, this era has an infinite amount of stress for all ages.
"We have all sorts of people in the community who struggle with many things," Orchard said. "People respond in various ways. Sometime they have anxiety, sometimes they have depression. They cope in various ways, using substances, by shutting down, eating too much, drinking too much."
Mental health professionals help people recognize signs and symptoms, he said.
"It's not always obvious. We’re not always great at naming our emotions," Orchard said. "They help and notice if somebody's struggling and they have experience in helping them learn new skills to manage and cope, build resiliency and seek outside resources."
Heritage Health provides some of those resources by offering therapy for students in the Coeur d'Alene School District.
"We have some students who are doing very well," Orchard said. "We have lots of kids who are successful and adjusting and learning quite well. We also have a lot of students who struggle with their behaviors and their mental health or emotional difficulties. The amount of resources to meet those needs doesn't feel like enough."
Without a robust pool of mental health providers at the ready, students and the overall community will suffer in the long run.
Baker said he believes it's time for people to engage again.
"I could put a therapist in every single school in North Idaho if I could find them," he said. "They're just not there, that's the problem.
"We’ve been through a lot as a community," he continued. "It's time to get back to our roots and take care of each other."