Almost 50% of Australians will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives, costing our economy up to A$220 billion a year, according to pre-pandemic figures.
The full impact of the pandemic on our country’s mental health is yet to be seen, but early signs are grim, with one in five Australians suffering from some mental disorder between 2020 and 2021.
That includes 3.3 million people with anxiety disorders, 1.5 million with mood disorders, 650,000 with substance use disorders and more than 3,000 deaths from suicide each year.
However, accessing help can be very difficult. Government investment in psychological training programs is part of this problem.
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A serious shortage of psychologists
The federal government currently only achieves 35% of its personnel target in psychology.
One in three psychologists reports that they have closed their books to new patients due to overwhelming demand. Despite this, issues relating to the psychological workforce were not on the agenda of the recent Jobs and Skills Summit.
Brain and mental health disorders, including stroke, dementia, ADHD, depression and alcohol/substance abuse, are major causes of disability with significant personal and societal impacts.
Timely diagnosis, assessment, and treatment of these complex disorders is critical. However, these services require psychologists with advanced training. These include clinical psychologists, clinical neuropsychologists, counseling psychologists, educational and developmental psychologists, forensic psychologists, and health psychologists. These psychologists are extensively trained in the assessment, intervention, and treatment of people with mental illness and brain disorders.
Hundreds of psychology positions in hospitals remain vacant, and patients (including children) are waiting up to two years for care. In regional and remote hospitals in particular, positions are often advertised for months without qualified applicants.
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Psychology training places are declining despite high demand
Postgraduate courses in psychology are costly to administer, require high staff-to-student ratios, and incur high clinical mentoring and placement costs.
Unlike medical degrees, government funding for these programs does not even come close to covering the cost of the courses. The recently reduced federal government support is half that of veterinary medicine. This means universities are losing money on these programs, making them an unattractive financial prospect for increasingly tight college budgets.
Despite persistently high demand for training places, this has led to students dropping out of their studies. Across Australia, the number of clinical neuropsychology training programs has fallen from eight to five in the last decade. There have been similar cuts in health, counseling and forensic psychology education.
La Trobe University’s neuropsychology program received more than 300 applications annually for up to 10 places, but the program closed in 2020. Likewise, clinical psychology programs regularly receive at least 20 applicants for every available spot, according to course leaders.
Universities are now resorting to cutting state-funded masters places in favor of expensive full-fee places (around $35,000 per year), impacting affordability, equitable access and student diversity. This disrupts any effort to build a culturally and socio-economically representative workforce and fails to meet the needs of our healthcare sector.
Many psychologists choose to enter better-paying private practice right out of college, bypassing public health responsibilities. This affects the general public’s access to mental health services.
We have to do better. Vulnerable people with mental health problems deserve to be supported and protected.
5 solutions to the problem of psychological workers
There are simple steps that can go a long way towards solving this problem.
Increase funding for postgraduate psychology education so universities don’t lose money offering these programs.
Ensure a minimum number of Commonwealth-supported places (ie tuition free or reduced tuition) are protected for students in psychology training programs and ensure these match workforce requirements and job openings.
Consider training models that include “return commitments.” In this case, the government subsidizes tuition fees but requires graduates to study for a minimum period, e.g. B. two years, engage in paid work in the healthcare sector.
Invest in joint posts for university and health service psychological staff (as is the case in medical education) to provide supervision and internships within the sector.
Improving internship opportunities for postgraduates through better cooperation between universities, services and authorities.
All Australians deserve to have their mental health needs supported by trained and qualified psychologists. Investing in the psychology workforce will be good for the economy, increasing overall workforce participation, reducing wait times and saving lives.
The authors would like to thank Tamara Cavenett (President, Australian Psychological Society) and Lynda Katona (Manager, Psychology Services, Alfred Health) for their contributions to this article.