Strike by Kaiser employees highlights the issues of access and wait times in mental health treatment facilities.

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Employees at Kaiser medical facilities in the San Francisco area walked off their jobs last month in a protest over wait times for patients. Getty Images

For patients seeking mental health services in the United States, wait times appear to be increasing — and there isn’t an easy solution in sight.

A strike last month by mental health workers at Kaiser Permanente in the San Francisco region is indicative of problems across the nation.

The reason for their walkout was to protest ballooning wait times for people seeking mental health services.

According to those striking, some people were having to wait four to six weeks before seeing a mental health professional.

Clement E. Papazian, a licensed social worker in the psychiatry department at Kaiser Oakland, was involved in that strike.

“The strike that we just had piggybacks on five years’ worth of struggle that we’ve had with Kaiser just in getting them to acknowledge this problem,” he told Healthline.

These aren’t the first strikes to be held there. A similar one occurred in 2015, with Kaiser subsequently agreeing to make improvements to its patient-therapist ratio.

Kaiser was also fined $4 million in 2013 by the state for inadequate patient mental health access.

However, improvements have been made.

According to a statement released by Kaiser last month, the health system has increased the number of therapists on staff by 30 percent — bringing 500 new therapists to California alone — and invested $175 million to improve mental health infrastructure and access.

But critics say for a company that wants to be “the best mental health and addiction care program in the nation,” those improvements may be falling short.

“They’ll say, well we have hired 500 therapists since that agreement. Which is true. But the demand [for therapists] far, far exceeds what they’ve on-boarded and we just don’t see that a company that’s got $28 billion in reserve can’t solve this problem if there’s serious intent,” said Papazian.

The problem of access, and specifically wait times, isn’t unique to Kaiser.

A study conducted by the National Council for Behavioral Health, a mental health and addiction advocacy group, and the Cohen Veterans Network stated that 96 million Americans had to wait longer than one week for mental health treatments.

That can just be the tip of the iceberg.

According to a story in October in the Chicago Tribune, some clinics can leave patients waiting for anywhere between three weeks and a year to see psychiatrists or specialists.

“I think there are a few issues, but certainly there is more demand than supply right now,” Linda Rosenberg, president and chief executive officer of the National Council for Behavioral Health, told Healthline.

“You know, we worked very hard and wanted very much for people to feel comfortable talking about emotional problems and addiction. I think we’ve been successful with that, right? So everybody’s talking and now people are looking for treatment and there are not enough clinicians that are available,” she said.

While stigma around mental health has declined and more Americans have started seeking treatment, there hasn’t been a comparable increase in therapists at health systems and hospitals.

In particular, Rosenberg says, millennials and younger age groups are more open to discussing and seeking mental health treatment. Veterans are also seeking out mental health professionals in growing numbers.

“You have these populations that we didn’t plan for and now what do we do about it?” said Rosenberg.

Among other demands, the striking employees at Kaiser demanded the hiring of more mental health workers. They say improving the ratio between therapists and patients is associated with better access, better quality of care, and improved wait times.

However, mental health workers don’t just appear out of thin air to whisk away anxieties. They require schooling and training and paychecks.

“I think there are not enough and because it’s been lower paying among the medical profession, it hasn’t attracted great numbers,” said Rosenberg. “I think as they begin to pay more, we will get more people going into the field. But that’s gonna take time, so we have this lag right now. Rates haven’t gone up yet and they need to.”

In the meantime, for individuals seeking mental healthcare that are facing long wait times, there are a few things you can do:

  • Seek help in a crisis. If you’re feeling suicidal or acutely distressed, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached through chat online, or at 1-800-273-8255.
  • Educate yourself and find resources. Find relevant resources and educate yourself about what options are available within and outside of the healthcare system, including “mental health first aid” courses.
  • Look for therapy options available via the web. Telepsychiatry, using communication software such as Skype or FaceTime, is a convenient way to speak with a mental health professional from the comfort of your own home.
  • Try to work around the healthcare system. “Put pressure on insurance companies to pay for it, even if the provider is out of network… be assertive,” said Rosenberg.