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Access to mental healthcare is a barrier for many

Pa. has new law that could make mental health treatment more available

  • Scott LaMar
Mental Health Awareness Month card, poster, May. Vector illustration. EPS10

Mental Health Awareness Month card, poster, May. Vector illustration. EPS10

Aired; May 21st, 2024.


May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but quite frankly more Americans are aware of their mental health – especially since the COVID pandemic. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in five American adults has experienced a mental health challenge, and one in 20 Americans live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or severe depression.

Those statistics may not tell the whole story. There seem to be more people who are suffering from depression and other mental illnesses or experiencing episodes of poor mental health since the pandemic.

However, there are barriers to seeking help in the form of therapy or other treatments. One of the biggest is access to trained mental health professionals. There simply aren’t enough to keep up with the demand.

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro signed a bill earlier this spring that could make more therapists and counselors available.

Joining us on The Spark Tuesday to talk about mental health and access to treatment were Alison Pidgeon, Chief Executive Officer and Valerie McNicholl, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and the Chief Operations Officer, both with Move Forward Counseling.

Pidgeon was asked why there are more people who seem to be experiencing poor mental health,”The pandemic for so many people was so difficult, and if they were already struggling a little bit, but maybe coping okay, the pandemic was just another humongous layer of stress on top of all of the things that they were already dealing with. And then it really just became apparent that they needed help. And then I also think the pandemic — silver linings — it just became a lot more normal to talk about mental health. The stigma was less because everybody just went through this very, traumatic experience. And so that’s the other piece that we have seen as well.”

McNicoll addded,”I think obviously the pandemic has had an impact, but I think we were seeing an increase in mental health needs even prior to the pandemic. So that was just exacerbated. Even more so, I don’t individually see clients any more, but I meet with the staff who do, and I’m just coming out of a meeting, where staff are expressing that clients seem to be sicker, that the acuity level, of some of the clients we’re seeing in outpatient seems to be higher. And people seem to be struggling more. I also agree that I think the stigma is less. It’s still there and it’s still very strong, especially in certain communities. But I think particularly our younger folks, our Gen Z, younger millennial folks, they feel much more comfortable talking about mental health and talking about accessing help and support for mental health problems.”

Access to mental healthcare has been a problem for years according to Pidgeon and she explained why,”If you look at the cost of getting an advanced degree, you need to either a master’s degree or a PhD to become a therapist. And obviously that’s a very expensive and time consuming proposition and then you come out of school making very little money. And so I think that it just doesn’t make financial sense for people to go to school to become a therapist. You don’t want to spend $100,000 on a graduate degree and come out making $40,000 a year. So, I really think that the the answer is for insurance reimbursement rates to increase, to pay therapists at the level of other Masters and PhD level professionals in the healthcare field.”

Gov. Shapiro signed a bill in March that created a new licensure category, allowing individuals to practice as licensed associate marriage and family therapists and licensed associate professional counselors. The idea is to expand access to mental health services and addresses the need for more practitioners. Under the new law, individuals with the required educational qualifications but who have not completed the necessary supervised clinical experience can obtain an associate license. This enables them to provide mental health support and qualify for insurance reimbursement while under the guidance of a licensed supervisor.

Pidgeon said the new law could have a great impact on accessibility,”This is huge for Pennsylvania in terms of having a whole new pool of people who now have an associate level license and can hopefully bill insurance. Although that remains to be seen. So essentially, when you get your degree, you come out of school, if you’re going to become a therapist, you come out of school and you get your master’s degree in social work, or you get your master’s degree in counseling. The social workers were able to become licensed social workers, so that was their version of their provisional license. There was no provisional license for the people who were getting their masters in psychology, so they had to work for two years totally on license. They weren’t able to bill insurance. Even as an employer, it was difficult for me to employ them, because that means that we had to basically ask people to pay out of pocket to see that person, which is obviously another barrier to treatment. So there weren’t a lot of opportunities for those folks. They also ended up in jobs where they weren’t paid very well. And so now our hope is that they have this associate level license and they’ll be able to bill insurance, just like the, licensed social workers do.”




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