In a brutal and isolating winter, New Hampshire has a shortage of therapists

Amid Covid, providers report seeing the ‘biggest spike’ in people seeking care

Mental HealthThere is no archetype of people seeking mental health help right now.

Some who reach out to therapists are mothers completely overwhelmed as they try to balance Zoom calls and parenting stir-crazy kids. Some are adolescents whose social interactions were suddenly limited to tiny boxes on their computers. Some callers have never needed therapy before the pandemic. Others want to ramp up sessions they have attended for years.

Prospective clients have no universal reason for calling either. The pandemic, of course, comes up often. But the specific subject of distress seems to change in waves, said Seth Wizwer, president of the New Hampshire Mental Health Counselors Association.

At first, people were anxious about contracting the virus but as quarantine stretched from weeks to months to over a year, callers became weary of seemingly endless isolation.

The only thing that seems constant to therapists who field calls from the public during a global pandemic is that the requests keep coming in at an unprecedented rate.

“Consistently, every day, people call asking if they could start services,” Wizwer said. “This has definitely been the biggest spike I’ve seen in my career. I haven’t had this many, all at once, constantly looking.”

During a typical year, Wizwer’s practice might hear from one person a week who wants to become a new patient. This past year, he has heard from around five people a week.

Many mental health providers have struggled with what to do with the influx of people in need of psychological services. Meredith Orchard-Blowen, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and master’s level alcohol and drug counselor in Portsmouth, has been completely booked since the fall.

“So many of my colleagues are also full,” Orchard-Blowen said. “I have five or six that I typically refer to and none of them are taking new clients.”

Orchard-Blowen said she has no choice but to tell people to keep searching online for someone with open appointment slots.

Therapists like this are hard to find during a global pandemic. Jena Mottola, executive director of the New Hampshire Psychological Association, estimates that between 95% and 100% of her members are not accepting new patients.

“We’re having to turn people away, plain and simple and what they’re doing is losing sleep every single night,” she said. “I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I use the word crisis.”

Families seeking help

Katie Maskowitz, a therapist in Concord for children and adolescents, said she hasn’t been accepting new clients since August. Before the pandemic, she had a steady stream of clients but could always squeeze someone in if she felt they were a good fit.

Recently, she received so many daily calls from families searching for mental health resources, she changed her voicemail to emphasize she doesn’t have any open appointments.

Maskowitz said she’s worked more during the pandemic than she has in her entire life. When she has time to call back prospective clients who left messages, she refers them to their primary care doctor or Riverbend, Concord’s community mental health center that typically handles the most acute mental health needs.

“My understanding of it is they do typically work with folks who need a lot more case management,” she said. “But I don’t know where else to send them.”

Anastasyia Esposito, psychotherapist at Healing Roots Mental Health Counseling in Amherst, said most of the people who call her practice say they haven’t heard back from any of the other therapists they’ve called. Esposito, like so many of her colleagues, has no free appointments. All she can do is offer to put them on her 20-week waitlist.

Wizwer has also started to tell prospective clients he likely won’t be able to see them until March. Typically, clients facing a month-long wait would look for another therapist. Nowadays, they ask him to book them anyway.

Esposito said she has tried to discharge higher functioning patients to make room for people who are in need of urgent help, but many are resistant to give up a coveted appointment slot right now.

“People know how hard it is to find a therapist, and they’re worried,” she said. “What if I’m not good in a couple months? I’m gonna have to be on your waitlist for months.”

She worries about what will happen to those who are stuck in limbo. Most people who reach out for help, she said, aren’t going to be able to recover on their own while they wait for mental health help.

“Usually when they get to a point of looking for help, they feel like they can’t help themselves,” she said. “Usually things get more severe. What is that going to mean for the community?”

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