Clients at mercy of critical psychologist shortage

Kristin Hall
Source: 1News

Clinical psychologists are calling on the government to urgently boost the workforce, with some having to turn away dozens of clients a month.

The Government's 2018 mental health inquiry He Ara Oranga recommended increasing the number of psychologists, but the number being trained at the six New Zealand universities that offer it hasn't risen.

Former crisis counsellor and clinical psychology student Lucy McLean’s launched a petition to double the psychologist workforce.

She knows just how hard it is to access mental health support after working as a telephone crisis counsellor.

“There was one particular call when I spoke with a young person who I thought would die on the phone with me. 

“I experienced quite severe trauma symptoms after that and had to stop working for a while.”

She says she was put on a five-month waitlist to see a psychologist.

“That’s actually very much at the shorter end of things… it really hammered home to me how dire things are that when I really needed support I needed to wait this long. 

“If someone who has every bit of resource and know-how available in terms of accessing mental health support can’t do it, what’s it like for everyone else?”

McLean’s experience was back in 2019. 

A recent survey of New Zealand clinical psychologists in private practice shows wait times appear to have gotten even longer.

Dr Paul Skirrow from the NZ College of Clinical Psychologists says 271 clinical psychologists responded to the survey, with more than 50 per cent reporting having to turn away more than 10 families every month.

Many reported having to turn away more, with several indicating they turn away more than 40 clients per month.

Dr Skirrow says the current demand for private psychologists is “unprecedented”, and some NZCCP members have wait times of over a year.

“About half of our members said they’d stopped offering waiting lists altogether because the waitlists were just growing and growing and we’re really worried about people with mental health conditions waiting for six months, a year in some cases. 

“They felt it was better to tell people to maybe try somewhere else.”

Wellington clinical psychologist Giselle Bahr is one practitioner who’s stopped offering a waitlist. 

She’s currently having to turn away about 60 people a month.

“Some people are really distressed and desperately want to see somebody, somebody told me that I was the 47th person that they’d tried.

“Previously if we couldn’t see somebody, we would suggest someone else they could try, but now we've kind of pulled back from doing that because we don’t know anybody who has got space.

“It’s hard for us on this side and we're also aware it’s hard for the person who's asking for help.”

Clinical psychology student Lucy McLean.

In 2018 the He Ara Oranga government inquiry into mental health predicted the number of psychologists wouldn’t be able to keep up with population growth and said building the workforce should be an “immediate priority”.

But figures provided to 1 NEWS show the number of clinical psychologists being trained at our universities has stayed static over the past four years.

Clinical psychology courses are offered at Auckland, Massey, Canterbury, Otago, Victoria and Waikato universities. 

Between 2017 and 2020 the number of applications to study clinical psychology across those universities has risen from 509 applications a year to 619, but the number being trained hasn’t seen the same boost. 

Sixty-five clinical psychology students were trained in 2017, 76 in 2018, 61 in 2019, and 65 in 2020.

University of Otago’s Clinical Psychology Training Programme director Dr Dione Healey says the university wants to be able to train more students.

“We are able to train 10 students annually in the programme and this has not changed despite a strong desire by us to do so.

“The main reason we cannot take more is because we do not have enough internships,” Dr Heasley says. 

“We desperately need government support at the DHB and internship level to enable us to increase our intake.”

Health Minister Andrew Little says while steps are being taken to increase the workforce, it could take years before there’s a real difference.

“We know we had to beef up that workforce that’s why we put in place extra scholarships, roughly 80 last year, another 45 this year in addition to other training we’ve been giving existing members of the workforce to learn specific mental health skills.

“It’s going to take a while, creating a new clinical psychologist is a six to seven-year project… if somebody’s starting from scratch. There is a shortage now, totally know that…we’ve got to build our own internal workforce which is why a lot of the scholarships have been focussed on Māori and Pasifika.”

Clinical psychology student Samuel Clack says after 10 years of study, he’s worried by the huge demand that awaits him.

“There isn't as much time to do the work you've been trained to do because so much of it is spent managing the sheer amount of people coming through the service,” he says.

McLean says she wants to see a coordinated plan from universities and the government to create more clinical psychologists as well as health and educational psychologists.

“It's all very well to do scholarships, but that's still supporting the same number of people going through, we also need more places so that more people can be trained.”