There is a national shortage of mental health professionals, and it’s being felt locally.

With the Wilmington area particularly hard-hit by the opioid crisis, we’re seeing mental health professionals turn away people who literally are begging for help.

“Every time I say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t take a new patient,’ I feel guilty,” said Dr. Tom Boeker, a local psychiatrist. “They’re desperate.”

He recounted to reporter Cammie Bellamy how he arrived at his office and found a drug addict crying, frantic for help.

Southeastern North Carolina is seeing a shortage of all mental health providers. But the shortfall is particularly acute among psychiatrists, mental health providers who are medical doctors and can prescribe medicine.

Nationwide, the number of psychiatrists fell 10 percent from 2003 to 2013, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health, even with the opioid crisis unfolding and suicide rates on the rise.

One challenge is getting medical students to choose psychiatry, a field that pays less than other medical specialties — it’s near the bottom — while often taking an emotional toll on its practitioners.

Providers such as Physicians Alliance for Mental Health and Coastal Horizons that receive public funding and take Medicaid patients must be on edge in these budget-cutting days, hoping the government will come through with the resources they need to serve patients.

Allowing mental health problems to go untreated is an individual tragedy, but it’s also a risk for the larger population.

Letting jails and emergency rooms become the default treatment centers is a costly and unsatisfactory approach. Letting folks with addictions and unresolved issues roam the streets without help or prescribed medication puts us all at risk. It’s not only compassionate to help the mentally ill, it’s safer for everybody.

Some very serious mental health problems can be successfully managed with medications, but that requires ongoing medical oversight.

New Hanover Regional Medical Center, which has been reaching out into the community in new ways and also bringing specialty practitioners to the area, should help find solutions at the medical level.

With its new doctoral program in clinical psychology, UNCW should play an active role in meeting this critical need. There are other important resources at UNCW — the School of Social Work trains clinical counselors, and the School of Nursing trains nurse practitioners. These are excellent resources that need to be leveraged toward filling the provider gap.

Next time you encounter someone working in the mental health field, thank them. It’s difficult, important work — and too often misunderstood and thankless.

— from the StarNews of Wilmington.


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