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'The needs are so great': Mental health professionals combat high therapy demand

School of Medicine
Bondurant Hall is home to UNC's School of Medicine located on South Columbia St. UNC medical students were matched with their residency programs on Friday, March 15, 2019.

Mental health professionals in North Carolina are working to combat the growing demand for mental health care — even while trying to maintain their own mental well-being.

The average share of adults who reported symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders in the U.S. jumped from 11 percent in 2019 to 41.1 percent in 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics and the United States Census Bureau.

A variety of inequities and accessibility issues stand in the way of North Carolinians receiving the mental health care they need, such as difficulty accessing insurance and paying for mental health services and high demand for available providers.

In 2019, there was one therapist available for every 390 North Carolinians who are in need of mental health services, according to a 2022 State of Mental Health in America report

More than half of adults in North Carolina with any mental illness, as well as more than half of youth with at least one major depressive episode, said they did not receive treatment for their mental health, according to the report.

“When I was trying to refer kids to therapists, there could be anywhere from four weeks to three months of a waitlist,” said Alyssa Draffin, a clinical assistant professor at the UNC School of Social Work.

The increase in demand for care has caused a "bottleneck in the system," Draffin said. She added that mental health professionals are sacrificing their time and rest in an attempt to alleviate this issue.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Draffin said patients canceled fewer sessions because they were conducted online. She said having these back-to-back sessions didn't leave time to decompress in between patients. 

"You’ve got to somehow find it within yourself to be completely present — not distracted — and open again to that person’s issues and hurts and wishes and desires and wins, and be ready and present to do something with that, so that they leave with something meaningful, and then do it over again for the next person, then the next person, then the next person,” she said.

Over the pandemic, some mental health professionals increased their availability to take on new clients. Oftentimes, they have had to eventually scale back to take care of their own mental well-being.

Kristi Webb, a clinical psychologist in Chapel Hill, added an extra day into her work week during the pandemic to care for more people. 

After a while, she made the difficult decision to significantly reduce the number of clients she saw, matching them with new therapists due to the burnout she experienced.

“I had a lot of guilt, I still do, because I know that the needs are so great,” Kristi Webb said.

Angela Annas, a clinical social worker and therapist, also took on more clients to help care for the urgent need she saw. 

After about nine months with more patients, she said she began to feel overwhelmed and chose to stop accepting new clients.

Despite wanting to provide support for the immense need around them, some mental health professionals have come to understand that they have to take care of themselves in order to take care of others.

“There is a high burnout rate in the counseling field as well if we’re not taking care of ourselves, especially those who work day-in and day-out with trauma,” said Sharon Webb, a psychology professor and program coordinator at Gardner-Webb University.

Sharon Webb is also a volunteer with The Emotional PPE Project, a nationwide nonprofit where mental health professionals provide free care for healthcare workers in their state. 

A similar service, UNC’s Taking Care of Our Own Program, offers mental health treatment, education and support to physicians and staff at the UNC Medical Center and departments within the UNC School of Medicine.

Crystal Schiller, an assistant professor of psychiatry at UNC and the director of program development for the Taking Care of Our Own Program, said it was an honor to work with healthcare workers during the pandemic.

“We’ve really increased the number of folks that we are serving and that are reaching out to us for support as the pandemic started,” Schiller said.

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Through it all, many mental health care workers agree that their hard work is worth it, Kristi Webb said. 

“We love listening to people’s stories," Kristi Webb said. "And it’s important to us to be able to provide that sacred space where people share their most vulnerable moments with us. It takes tremendous courage to come to therapy, and we take it very serious."

Ultimately, mental health professionals agree that setting healthy boundaries and habits is important for continually providing quality care.


@DTHCityState | 

Eliza Benbow

Eliza Benbow is the 2023-24 lifestyle editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer university editor. Eliza is a junior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and creative writing, with a minor in Hispanic studies.