Her story is far from unique. Since the pandemic, extensive waitlists have become a common part of people’s quests to start therapy. Therapists around the country are struggling to meet the demand for care spurred by an uptick in mental health concerns like increased depression, anxiety, and angst. At the same time, burnout among clinicians is also prevalent, as therapists see fuller client lists than ever.
So what can you do if you’ve decided it’s time to seek help for your mental health, but don’t know when you’ll actually be able to get an appointment?
What it’s like joining a waitlist
It’s not uncommon for therapists to have waitlists that are six to eight months long, especially for specialists, says Merrill Wood, LCMHC, CRC, a counselor at Ivy and Oak Therapy. Even when you find an opening, it’s not always a certainty that the therapist will be the right match. “Finding an excellent therapist can be like finding an excellent restaurant—it takes time, it's subjective, and it's important that you don’t give up if the first option isn’t for you,” Wood says.
When you add your name to a waitlist, you can ask the practice when they might have an opening. “Sometimes we know that someone is transitioning out of therapy, or moving away and that there will be an opening at a specific time,” says Patrice Le Goy, Phd, LMFT, MBA, an international psychologist and adjunct professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
If the practice has no indication of when they might have an opening, it’s wise to keep searching. Psychology Today’s therapist directory can filter which therapists are accepting new clients and criteria like accepted insurance.
Wood says there is no right or wrong number of waitlists to join, but she recommends joining more than two. “This decision depends on what style of therapy you want or need, how many options are available in your area, the severity of your symptoms, and the amount of time you have available to contact and communicate with potential therapists,” Wood says.
How to tend to your mental health while in therapy limbo
When you’ve located potential therapists that meet your criteria, how can you support yourself while you’re waiting for an appointment? While nothing can replace therapy, some practices can provide support in the meantime.
Self-care is essential, with or without a therapist. For starters, Elisabeth Gulotta, LMHC, owner, founder, and psychotherapist at NYC Therapeutic Wellness, recommends practices like eating nourishing foods, good hygiene, movement, and journaling. “Self-care is very individualized, so really what is most important is finding what works best for you,” Gulotta says.
It can also be useful to build your support network through new friendships, and stay connected to those who care about you, Gulotta adds.
While you’re waiting for a therapy opening, specialized support groups tailored to your needs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, can be helpful. Wood also recommends therapy workbooks like the Self-Therapy Workbook, an exercise book using the Internal Family Systems (IFS) approach.
While resources like podcasts and therapist social media accounts cannot replace a therapeutic relationship, Gulotta says they can offer some assistance. If you need tiding over, telehealth therapy platforms like BetterHelp or Talkspace generally have shorter waitlists and can help fill the gap while you wait for more specialized care or in-person therapy.
When to seek immediate care
There are times when is waiting it out is not your best bet. “Some signs that you need immediate care are if you have thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else, you are suffering from serious substance issues, or are unable to go about your daily tasks where you can’t get out of bed or go to work or school,” Dr. Le Goy says.
Wood says symptoms like distressing hallucinations or delusions warrant urgent care. For those struggling with eating disorders, Wood says criteria eliciting prompt care includes recently losing 15 percent of your body weight due to food restriction or limiting nutrition intake to only one or two small meals per day.
Dr. Le Goy points out that care also becomes critical in abusive situations because they can escalate quickly. Resources such as hotlines and domestic violence programs can offer immediate support.
Hotlines can also help with urgent matters for a range of symptoms and connect you to local resources. Sometimes, immediate care can involve heading to a local crisis unit or emergency room, or attending an inpatient or outpatient program, depending on your needs.
How to keep from feeling defeated
You can follow up every couple of weeks with the waitlists you’re on. “My hope is that clients feel empowered to include questions in their initial email request that might feel ‘embarrassing’ or ‘bothersome’ because therapists are specifically trained and equipped to handle hard questions,” Wood says.
Knowing you need help and reaching out for it is a courageous first step, even though waiting for therapy amidst a clinician shortage can feel deflating and endless. Relying on online resources, supportive relationships, and self-care while you wait can provide some respite.
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