Why North Carolina needs more psychologists

Gov. Pat McCrory has been traveling the state on a “Listening Tour” of 1,000 businesses aimed at promoting business growth, reducing unemployment and increasing opportunities for worker training. As an impediment to such growth, McCrory has cited worker shortages in the areas of transportation, agriculture, information technology, accounting and finance.

In a speech taped by television news crews on Sept. 25, McCrory also said our state has “enough psychologists” and workers in several other white collar fields. Soon after this gaffe, McCrory realized – or was convinced – the comment was a mistake and acknowledged it as such that same day.

It was an unfortunate misstep. However, it at least presents an opportunity for McCrory and North Carolina residents to “listen and learn” that there are not nearly enough psychologists and other behavioral health professionals to meet the demand for services in our state.

As of June 30, there were 2,662 licensed doctoral level psychologists in North Carolina. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, North Carolina’s population in 2013 was 9,848,060. This means that, statewide, there was one psychologist for every 3,700 residents – or 27.3 psychologists for every 100,000. The national average is 32.77 per 100,000.

Startlingly, psychologists are not evenly distributed throughout the state, so many residents in rural areas do not have ready access to psychological treatment. Sixty-two of North Carolina’s 100 counties are designated as Health Professional Shortage Areas.

Although the number of licensed psychologists continues to grow at about 4.5 percent per year, several factors were identified by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services in a 2013 report to the General Assembly as contributors to the shortage of behavioral health professionals:

•  The aging population of behavioral health providers.

•  Limited training opportunities.

•  The loss of public sector positions because of changes in the state mental health system.

•  The lack of competitive salaries for behavioral health providers.

In fact, reimbursement for mental health services has been decreasing during the past decade. The major points of the 2013 DHHS report were the need to increase the number of behavioral health providers and to provide adequate funding for public mental health services, which has been significantly cut in recent years.

Psychologists are exceedingly well-suited to help meet the shortage of mental health providers in North Carolina. Psychologists are experts in the human experience. They are in a unique position to help people improve the quality of their lives and their ability to function on he job, with their families and in their communities. Psychologists help people live happier, healthier and more productive lives.

They apply research-based techniques to help people develop more effective habits, reduce distress and improve functioning.

McCrory’s comments about the number of psychologists in North Carolina would be accurate if the mental health needs in all 100 counties were currently met. We would have enough psychologists if the needs of all schoolchildren with learning disabilities were addressed, if emergency rooms weren’t packed with people suffering from emotional distress and if our jails and prisons were not crowded with individuals with serious psychological problems.

Yes, we would have enough psychologists if families were not torn apart by drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence, if suicide and homicide did not end the lives of so many of our neighbors, if returning military veterans did not experience Post Traumatic Stress and if those affected by disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes did not experience significant trauma

We’re glad McCrory admitted his mistake and acknowledged the shortage of psychologists and other behavioral health professionals. We’re ready to partner with him and his administration to rectify this problem so we can improve the behavioral health of North Carolina residents.

Together, we can build an economically prosperous, technologically advanced and psychologically healthy future.

Dr. Sandra Wartski of Raleigh is president of the North Carolina Psychological Association.