Elyssa Larson has been seeing the same therapist in the Eau Claire area for 10 years. Until the COVID-19 pandemic she had plenty of access to her therapist when she needed it.
“It was much easier,” Larson said. “I could usually do several times a month at least and I wouldn’t have to worry about her being booked out months in advance.”
Since the pandemic, her therapist has been scheduling out a month or two in advance, and it is difficult to get an appointment to see her even once a month, Larson said.
Her therapist has told her she’s had to stop taking new clients for the first time in her 20-plus year career, Larson said. She told Larson she was overwhelmed by her workload and had to “draw a line for her own well-being.”
As the pandemic continues, a spike in demand for mental health services continues to be a problem for many who need services and can’t find an open appointment, according to therapists in the Eau Claire area.
Christine Brudnicki, a therapist and owner of Four WindsWellness in Eau Claire, said among other issues, she is seeing the biggest spike in anxiety and depressive symptoms in patients.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique challenge for many regarding their mental health, she said.
“There’s no way to get relief when you’re living in the chaos,” Brudnicki said.
According to an American Psychological Association poll of nearly 1,800 mental health professionals last November, 74% said they were seeing more patients with anxiety disorders and 60% said they were seeing more patients with depressive disorders since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 30% said they were seeing more patients overall.
“What I’m hearing is (that) people are pretty booked out,” Brudnicki said. “You generally have to wait to get in to see someone.”
Larson said she has several friends who have been struggling as they are trying to find a therapist who is taking new clients.
“It definitely has a very negative effect on mental well-being,” Larson said. “It leaves a lot of people trying to find their own way and definitely suffering as a result.”
Brudnicki said prior to the pandemic, things were already stretched, so the spike in demand since the pandemic has only worsened the situation.
She said the biggest spike in demand happened at her practice during the fall of 2020 and the demand has remained high since then. She said initially when the pandemic started many people were uncomfortable with online therapy, which was the only option at the time.
“Some people were very uncomfortable with telehealth,” Brudnicki said. “Moving to the computer, people felt very self-conscious, and it was hard to look at themselves.”
She said as the pandemic has continued, people who already had a tendency towards anxiety struggled more.
“Almost everybody that came in it was (for) anxiety and it was related to the pandemic,” Brudnicki said.
The longer the pandemic went on, more patients started reporting feelings of hopelessness and being “worn out” and depressed, Brudnicki said.
Brudnicki, who works mostly with teens and college students, said students who relied on resources in the school building to do schoolwork and students with learning disabilities like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) struggled more during the pandemic due to the stress of online classes.
She said the resources individuals have is an important factor as well, as those with good insurance can get in for mental health services easier. If someone has limited insurance, they likely will have to wait 6-10 weeks to find an appointment.
If you have the means to pay in cash or good insurance, most patients can get in somewhere within a couple of weeks for a therapy session, Brudnicki said. She said the wait for psychiatry sessions for prescribing medication is longer, generally a three-six month wait right now.
Cory Tischman, a therapist and owner of Eclipse Counseling LLC in Eau Claire, said that just a few months after opening his private practice this September, his client list already is full.
“I think that in general, speaking with other mental health professionals, it seems like the demand has completely outstretched the supply of therapists in the area,” Tischman said.
Tischman said as soon as he opened his private practice in September, other therapists he knew in the area began referring clients to him because their own schedules were full and they could not accept any new clients.
He said many of the new potential clients who are reaching out to him recently are frustrated and saying they’ve called many different places and weren’t accepted.
Tischman said the most common issues that he’s seen an uptick in since the pandemic include anxiety, depression, isolation and suicidal ideation.
He said the increase in mental health issues during the pandemic which includes suicidal ideation highlights the need for availability of mental health care due to safety concerns.
One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that focused on children reported an increase in the proportion of mental health-related hospital visits for children in 2020 after the pandemic started.
Tischman said his younger clients who are students experienced many struggles during the pandemic related to online learning, especially the elementary-aged children.
“That is not how they learn or engage,” Tischman said.
He also has seen increased social anxiety as people transitioned back into in-person school, work and activities, especially in the younger population.
He said even though things seemed to improve slightly once more people were able to go out and interact at least somewhat normally post-lockdown, this issue is not going away.
“I think the pandemic really highlighted the fact that we have a shortage of mental health professionals,” Tischman said.
He said many clinics are looking for more therapists to hire and the supply is not there. The shortage in bilingual therapists and therapists of color in a predominantly white area is also a problem, he said.
Jessica Stiteley, therapist and clinic director of Family Therapy Associates LLC in Eau Claire, said their clinic added a second location in Eau Claire and has hired a lot of new therapists to try to meet the demand for services in the Chippewa Valley,
She said they also opened a new location in Rice Lake this past summer.
“It takes a lot to make that first phone call and it’s got to be even harder to hear that you have to wait for services,” Stiteley said.
She said the surge in demand at their clinic began to pick up over the summer of 2020, and ever since that fall season it has continued.
Stiteley, whose specialty is couple and family therapy, said many families have struggled throughout the pandemic as a result of being home together more.
The added stresser of online schooling took its toll on many parents, and this also affected their kids, who can pick up cues from their parents when they are stressed, she said.
She said in addition to anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder will also be a concern moving forward for many as a result of increased stress during the pandemic.
“I think we’re going to continue to see layers of how people have been negatively affected and have experienced trauma symptoms related to the pandemic,” Stiteley said.
Renee Sommer, founder of At The Roots LLC in Altoona and certified peer support specialist, said she started struggling more with her own mental health when the pandemic came. Sommer said she had dealt with depression, anxiety and PTSD for years before the pandemic.
She said she started seeing a therapist during the pandemic to try to help. She said she got in early-on during the pandemic when therapists had just started to implement telehealth and many still had openings.
She said after three or four sessions of therapy she began looking for alternatives to the traditional therapy model and came across peer support but couldn’t figure out how to access it locally.
She said some people have access to it through government programs but that there were very few direct pay options available that she could find.
“I thought, ‘That’s not okay,’ and ‘I can fix that’,” Sommer said. “The pandemic was sort of a catalyst for me looking for an alternative in that mental health route and that is where At The Roots was born.”
Sommer became certified in peer support this past April and filed the paperwork for At The Roots that same month, she said.
People can book an appointment with At The Roots by visiting its website. Sommer said it was important for At The Roots to be low-barrier so people who are struggling can get in right away.
“Sometimes that’s what brings somebody to peer support: ‘I can’t (get in) to see my therapist for three months but I need support now,’” Sommer said.
She said a lot of the clients she is working with right now are struggling to get in for therapy. She said many of the people who come in say they can’t get in or may have missed an appointment with a therapist and can’t get another one for weeks.
Sommer said the immediacy of the help that people who are struggling with mental health often need makes the waitlists an even bigger problem. Many people reaching out need help immediately, she said.
“The idea of having to wait that long to receive support is just completely counterintuitive to what the person actually needs,” Sommer said.
She said while peer support is not a replacement for clinical therapy, they can provide support for someone while they wait to get in or they can work in conjunction with therapy as well, as the two can work complementary with each other.
Each individual is given the chance to identify the goals they want to work on in their peer support meetings, and they look very different for each person, Sommer said.
“When you come to us you decide what you need and we’re just there to support you as you do that,” Sommer said. “We don’t approach it with any kind of agenda.”
Sommer said they personalize the meetings with each individual to make them more enjoyable and helpful for them.
She said she sees one client who loves making crafts but struggles with the motivation to do so at home because of her anxiety and depression, so during her sessions they work on crafts while they discuss her life and what she is going through.
Sommer said her husband, Mike Sommer, who also works as a peer support specialist for At The Roots, has done countless different activities during his meetings, including playing disc golf or playing video games online like Minecraft with his clients.
Sommer said they strive to create an environment of “comfort and acceptance,” which includes setting up their office like a house so their clients feel at ease and comfortable.
As you walk inside At The Roots, the first thing you see is the living room and the dining room. They intentionally keep filing cabinets hidden, she said.
As seen on their website, At The Roots also offers group support circles and special events and gatherings in addition to one-on-one peer support meetings.
Sommer said there is a “significant need” for more mental health services in the area, but that they also need to be more accessible with lower barriers for it to make a big difference.
“Just adding more providers won’t necessarily solve it; it has to be in conjunction with making it more accessible to people,” Sommer said.