Wisconsin short more than 200 psychiatrists, experts say

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(WFRV) — About 1 in 5 Americans experience a mental illness in a given year, and according to a recent report by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs, roughly half of those who do in Wisconsin, aren’t receiving care. That’s largely due to a lack of psychiatrists in the state.

Dr. John Schneider, President of the Wisconsin Psychiatric Association, estimates there are anywhere from 320 to 480 practicing psychiatrists in the state. That’s about 30-40% less than what is needed.

“We’re probably about 200 to 225 short,” he says.

Those numbers are echoed by Bellin Psychiatric Center President Sharla Baenen.

“We need at least 200 psychiatrists to meet the unmet demand in the state of Wisconsin,” she says.

Not being able to see a psychiatrist can lead to drastic results.

“If you don’t intervene early enough, a mild to moderate episode can become moderate to severe, and then a person ends up being hospitalized,” Schneider says.

“If someone hasn’t had the ability to access care over time, they can definitely deteriorate from a condition standpoint, and could end up in an emergency department,” Baenen says.

Dr. James Billings, a psychiatry resident at Bellin, says he sees the psychiatry shortage as creating a loss of hope.

“Between having to travel long distances… wait times of perhaps three months to six months, it can be very discouraging for patients and then they might not want to pursue care,” he says. “When you have a mental health illness, your brain can turn against you and say, you’re never gonna get better, and why even try speaking to a doctor, or why even try starting another medication, because this will never change? And that’s not true, but it can feel like that.”

Dr, Billings also says without being able to see a psychiatrist, a patient might turn to the internet, and try unproven medications.

“Taking supplements and things that aren’t necessarily prescribed or indicated for these mental health conditions can harm patients,” he says.

Dr. Schneider attributes the shortage to a lack of interest from medical students in the specialty, and that many psychiatrists are over the age of 50, and have been retiring from practice. At the same time, more patients are seeking mental health treatment than ever before, increasing demand for psychiatrists while the supply shrinks.

“So that combination of lots of retirements, slow interest, and an increase and explosion in the number of people that want treatment creates the gap,” Schneider says.

Perhaps the strongest solution to bring more psychiatrists to Wisconsin is to increase residency programs in the state, and the Medical College of Wisconsin has recently begun two psychiatric residency programs.

“Usually about 80% of people will stay where they did their residency, so that was a long-term investment in trying to create people that were trained that will stay here,” Schneider says.

Going forward, Dr. Schneider advocates continuing to bring new residency programs to Wisconsin, as well as tax credits to bring psychiatrists into the counties where they’re needed.

“The problem with psychiatric illness, in general, is that lost life, and lost life vitality and I think psychiatry’s biggest impact is having people have happier and better lives, even if they can’t cure or fully get rid of the symptoms of the illness,” Schneider says.

More information on mental health can be found here.

The report from UWM on the psychiatrist shortage in Wisconsin can be found here.

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