The day after Tarek Saoud contemplated ending his life, the college student reached out for help on the campus of the university in Ohio he attended.
“I called the student mental health services and they told me I could see one of their therapists in, like, two months, which wasn’t going to work for me, unless it was urgent,” he recalls. “So I called back a week later when I was like, ‘I’m not going to survive this any longer, and they asked if it was urgent and I said, ‘Yes.’ They said, ‘Does that mean suicidal?’ I said ‘Yes’ and then at that point they got me an appointment the next week.”
The delay frustrated Saoud, now 22, who by that point had been thinking about suicide for months.
“For me it was a do-or-die situation,” he says. “When I called health services and told them I was suicidal, that was very true. I don’t want to say I made an attempt the night before but it looks like it was very close. A friend found me and told me straight up what I needed to hear, which was, ‘You can’t be here anymore. You need help now.’”
The delay Saoud experienced in getting the mental health care he was desperate for highlights a growing unmet need on college campuses throughout the country.
In the spring of 2018, more than 63 percent of college students experienced overwhelming anxiety, according to the American College Health Association. But those who seek help increasingly are likely to find they have to get in line.
For example, students at the University of California wait up to six weeks to see an on-campus counselor or therapist if it’s not an emergency. At California State University, it can take two to four weeks to get an appointment.
A 2017 special report by STAT, which is affiliated with the Boston Globe newspaper, found it could take up to three weeks to get a counseling appointment at Northwestern University in Illinois. The average wait time at Washington University in St. Louis, was nearly 13 days, while delays were so routine at Seattle’s University of Washington that the wait times, between two and three weeks, were posted online.
Nearly six in 10 — 56 percent — of Americans report seeking or wanting to find mental health services for themselves or a loved one. But it’s not always easy to get the care they’re looking for.
“We have a real unmet need in this country,” says Dr. Vaile Wright of the American Psychological Association (APA). “And what I mean by that is when we look at those who need or want to seek out mental health services and then we look at how many providers, there’s a gap where we just don’t have enough providers now and/or projection going forward to meet the need of those with mental and behavioral health issues.”
While demand psychiatric services increases, there’s a growing shortage of outpatient and inpatient programs, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health, which also found that more than 60 percent of practicing psychiatrists are over the age of 55 and will soon near retirement.
By 2030, there will be 22,000 fewer psychiatrists than required to meet growing demand, according to APA projections.
Right now, almost three-fourths of Americans — 74 percent — don’t feel mental health care is accessible for everyone, while almost half — 47 percent — believe their options are limited.
Sometimes it comes down to not knowing how to seek the help they need.
“I think people still don’t necessarily know who to see for their problem, or how to find them, or how to pay for it,” Wright says. “If you are experiencing a mental or behavioral health issue, your emotional distress can often interfere with your ability to figure some of this stuff out, and the stigma which continues to surround mental health, then makes it hard to ask those around us to maybe assist us.”
Wright says expanding access to national programs like Medicaid — the number one provider of mental health services in the United States — and the Affordable Care Act, could help provide more low-cost options for individuals in need of mental health care.
“We know that individuals with untreated mental and behavioral health issues, if they are working, have lower productivity, more absenteeism, so there are economic and workforce costs associated with mental health disorders,” Wright says.
Saoud, the college student, eventually got an appointment at the campus mental health center, but his frustrations continued.
“And then after that, I couldn’t get a follow-up appointment,” he recalls. “They scheduled me for a month later for a follow-up and that ended up getting canceled. Then it was summer at that point.”
Saoud ultimately left the Ohio college for good three weeks before the end of his sophomore year. Once he returned home, he started seeing both a psychiatrist and a psychologist, and he is now on medication.
After taking a semester off, Saoud is living at home while attending a nearby community college. He hopes to transfer to a different four-year university when he feels ready.