Experts in the Media

Donna Stambulich – The West Australian & PerthNow

Clinical Psychologist

Perth psychologists feeling the strain of ‘critical shortage’ as Federal Budget gives lifeline.

Perth psychologists say their workforce is being pushed to the limit amid unrelenting demand and a “critical shortage” of professionals, with some being forced to close off their books and others walking away from the job entirely to protect their own mental health.

The revelations come as last week’s Federal Budget unveiled $91.3 million over the next five years to address “acute bottlenecks in the psychology training pipeline”, but WA professionals say more is needed now to strengthen a sector already feeling the pressure.

Australian Psychological Society president and Perth-based psychologist Catriona Davis-McCabe told PerthNow WA’s “critical shortage of psychologists is breaking our mental health system”.

“If we don’t solve this problem the growing number of under-treated and untreated mental health patients could overwhelm our health system,” Dr Davis-McCabe said.

“We hear countless stories of patients having to wait more than 12 months to see a psychologist and this is completely unacceptable.

“Research tells us that prevention and early intervention are the cheapest and most effective forms of mental health treatment.

“In uncertain economic times the Government should be prioritising what we know works best.

“As a local psychologist and academic I’m seeing this disaster unfold firsthand and it is heartbreaking.”

A Department of Health and Aged Care spokesperson said all Australian universities offering postgraduate courses could apply for the Federal funding which aims to cover 500 more postgraduate places, 500 one-year internships for provisional psychologists and 2000 supervisor training places.

“These measures will enable provisional psychologists to safely deliver high-quality treatment to people in need, while completing their training,” they said.

Dr Davis-McCabe welcomed the funding as the nation’s psychology workforce had been long crying out for support.

“We are the largest mental health workforce and yet we have suffered from chronic underinvestment, despite record-breaking demand,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic opened the floodgates to unprecedented demand for mental health support.

An APS survey of its members last year found 75 per cent of West Australian psychologists had waitlists and nearly one in four were unable to take on new clients, compared to pre-pandemic numbers of just 1 in 100.

North Perth Psychology Centre director Donna Stambulich said her waitlist was currently about a month and she had opened an extra 10 sessions a week to try to meet demand.

Ms Stambulich said she had to work very hard to schedule and triage clients, but had witnessed many of her peers either leave the field or burnout due to demand, particularly during the pandemic.

A nationwide APS study in January found nearly half of psychologists surveyed had reduced their patient hours due to burnout or fatigue. And 44 per cent were considering taking extended leave, quitting or even choosing early retirement.

Ms Stambulich agreed last week’s funding boost was a step in the right direction but more needed to be done.

“More psychologists will clearly take the pressure off the services that are clearly cracking under the pressure, but we need to think about diversifying our mental health system,” she said.

“At this point in time it’s not about reform its about how we can relieve a mental health system which is clearly at crisis point.

Ms Stambulich said this could be done by connecting existing services like mental health occupational therapists and social workers particularly in private practice to help take pressure of psychologists.

Clear Health Psychology has a network of 16 clinics across Perth, with their 145 psychologists currently seeing up to 1800 people a week compared to about 1300 last year.

Clinical director Maxine Hawkins said they received an average of 70 new referrals a day and about 100 inquiries.

She said luckily due to their large team they could schedule a telehealth appointment within the hour if needed, but acknowledged that wasn’t the case for smaller practices.

Dr Hawkins said the shortages faced now would continue in the future if changes weren’t made and a focus was needed on creating ongoing relationships with patients.

“Prevention is better than a cure,” she said.

“We would be wise to set up a long-term relationship where people might come back every three or six months to a year for a top up so that we aren’t having this relapse where we’re actually having people in a crisis situation, or where mood has become so low and flat that we’ve got to do all this work again with them.”

Dr Davis-McCabe said more needed to be done to keep potential psychologists in WA, including the State Government funding scholarships.

Data from the APS revealed eight psychology masters courses had closed at WA universities since 2019 — including three at Curtin University.

A Curtin spokesperson said the programs were “exceptionally expensive to run” due to required staff to patient ratios and because the “substantial placement components” weren’t supported by State and Federal funding.

However, they said demand remained high with nearly 300 applications to Curtin’s two psychology masters courses this year.

“Since 2021, we’ve increased the number of places in the Master of Clinical Psychology by 60 per cent and by 2024 will have increased the number of places in the Master of Psychology (Professional) by nearly 50 per cent,” she said.

A University of Western Australia spokeswoman said honours enrolments in psychology remained “relatively stable” between 70 to 80 students per year.

The Curtin spokeswoman said low funding from the Federal Government severely limited the ability to offer places.

“These postgraduate courses receive less than half of the funding given to other programs with similar levels of rigour and professional training,” they said.

Other challenges included new graduates accessing the professional supervision needed to achieve and maintain their registration and the challenges attracting psychologists to train others.

A spokesperson for WA Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson said the State Government had increased the WA Mental Health Commission’s budget by 57 per cent since Labor came into power and it delivered more than $1 billion worth of mental health, alcohol and other drug services every year.

“A strong primary care sector is a vital component of any health system, and we know delayed access to primary care increases pressure on hospitals, which is why we continue to discuss our primary care needs with the Federal Government,” they said.