By Emalee Gillis, NAMI Spokane Blog Editor.

According to Katie Anderson, a licensed mental health counselor practicing in Spokane, accessing mental health care in Spokane has become increasingly difficult. She attributes this growing challenge to a number of factors. One reason mental health care is so difficult to access is due to something she sees as a positive. Ms. Anderson believes that the stigma of mental health is going down. She said, “People in our area are increasingly recognizing that everyone has mental health and it requires tending and care.  More and more people are reaching out for therapy, but the field has not kept up with providing reasonable access. Insurance hasn’t kept up either.”

Robert Lang, Resource Navigator at the Spokane Affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), agrees that our society has changed its view toward mental illness and there is more of a recognition of the importance of mental health. Mr. Lang said, “Mental health is now dinner conversation.”

In addition, both Ms. Anderson and Mr. Lang believe that the pandemic played a major role in what has now become a struggle for mental health access. Ms. Anderson said, “The pandemic isolated all of us. It created very real fears and concerns that weren’t there before. The pandemic exasperated tendencies toward anxiety and depression and made them worse. At the same time, the pandemic cut us off from the connections that once supported mental health and sent people into a tailspin. The support system that people had before the pandemic could no longer be counted on. In addition, the structures that young people moving into development stages typically counted on were no longer there to support them.”

Mr. Lang added, “The pandemic also caused some mental health service providers to close down, further restricting access and creating a backlog.”

As part of Mr. Lang’s job, he tries to help people access mental health care, but it is very challenging. “If someone calls me to find a psychiatrist and therapist, I first take into account their insurance. Their insurance may have a very slim field of providers they cover and those providers may have a waitlist that results in a wait time of several months. If my client has no insurance, I look at what they can afford. I had been referring people with cost restrictions to Whitworth’s Marriage and Family Center where services are provided through supervised graduate students for twenty-five dollars an hour, but someone I recently referred there reported back to me that Whitworth’s Center now has a waitlist of thirty-five people.”

Ms. Anderson described access to counselors and therapists as “horrible.” She said, “It is extremely difficult to find a counselor who is taking new clients. It’s an added difficulty to find one at a time that works, who specializes in the treatment needed, and is a financial fit.”

Ms. Anderson added that it is not just counselors and therapists who are hard to access in Spokane. She has heard through her colleagues that it is often difficult to access inpatient care in Spokane as well. Mr. Lang added that there are also often wait lists for intensive outpatient care in Spokane.

Mr. Lang shared that a woman who approached him recently was on state insurance. He looked through all his databases to try to find a therapist, but he ended up not being able to provide a single provider for her.

When Mr. Lang can’t find local providers, he tries to see if there is someone his client can see over telehealth. He also refers them to local support groups like the groups for people with mental health conditions and the groups for their families that NAMI provides. In addition, he encourages activities that promote good mental health like exercise, being outside, emotional regulation strategies that can be looked up on the internet, journaling, breathing exercises, and meditation. All of these can be a help, but they don’t take the place of seeing a provider to address the client’s specific needs.

Ms. Anderson explained that “Taking those first steps to reach out for mental health care takes a tremendous amount of courage. When that doesn’t work, it decreases trust in the system. Distrust leads to discouragement and hopelessness and makes mental health worse.”

There are real impacts to people in need of services not being able to access care. Ms. Anderson explained that lack of access “can fuel things like substance use disorders and unsafe behaviors. For school-age kids, it can mean that is much harder to perform in school.”

To give an example, Ms. Anderson said, “A kiddo I worked with a while ago was struggling with anxiety and ADHD. He found me years later. In the interim, he couldn’t find support. His grades and performance in high school deteriorated and it was attributed to being lazy and defiant. His behavior was actually related to ADHD and anxiety. Once he was back in care, his behavior improved and he performed better. His high school years could have been so much better if he would have had support the whole way.”

Ms. Anderson has advice for those seeking mental health care. “Be stubborn. Be determined. Be ready to hear “no” a lot, but keep calling. Keep reaching out. Get ready to call back again. Get really good at looking for clinicians through your insurance. We want you to keep calling.”

Both Ms. Anderson and Mr. Lang have hope that access to mental health care will improve locally and nationally over time. Ms. Anderson said, “Communities are demanding more mental health care. I’m seeing more insistence. I’m also seeing more organic advocacy for more care to be affordable.” Mr. Lang agreed. He said, “I see a lot more public awareness around mental health care. We need more resources at the county, state and federal level. Mental health touches so many different areas—homelessness, crime, public health, the ability to hold a job. Hopefully, we see changes that are necessary sooner rather than later.”

Katie Anderson is a licensed mental health counselor in Spokane. She has been practicing for twelve years. She currently owns a private practice called Lilac Mental Health. She previously provided individual and family therapy in community mental health and inpatient facilities.

Robert Lang is the Resource Navigator at the Spokane Affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). He is enrolled at Eastern Washington University for concurrent master’s degrees in social work and addiction studies. Previously, he served six years in the United States Air Force and separated out of Fairchild Air Force Base.

Emalee Gillis is a writer and blog editor. She is the author of the memoir Adventures on the Path to Living Well with a Mental Illness and has a related TEDx Talk.