Home Blog The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health provider shortage

The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health provider shortage

July 27, 2023
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The United States federal COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) declaration finally came to an end on May 11, 20231 and here in the U.S. measures of the virus (hospitalizations, deaths, test positivity) are generally trending downward after years of stacking cases and surges in transmission.2 However, as Marquette University Online Clinical Mental Health Counseling program director Dr. Krystyne Mendoza writes in a recent article for Counseling Today, “as with any traumatic event, we are only beginning to uncover the devastating effects.”3

Mendoza, who also is an assistant professor for the program, contributed to a cover story for the magazine that investigates several perspectives on the shortage of mental health providers in the U.S. In her piece, “The Impact of Covid-19 on the provider shortage,” Mendoza shares information and reflection digging into how a perfect storm of factors like growing mental health needs and provider burn out came together to result in a lack of providers. She also reveals how Marquette University has restructured its offerings to prepare the next generation of mental health providers and fill damaging gaps in care.

The effects of COVID-19 on mental health care

Some signs of the pandemic, like people in masks and hand sanitizer atop every counter, are visuals that will endure in our minds (and out in public) for a long time to come. But many of the greatest effects can’t be seen. As Americans were largely sequestered in their homes in the spring of 2020 and for the following year, many people found themselves struggling to deal with feelings of isolation and loneliness. Further, people were forced to grapple with enormous and somewhat frightening concepts and scenarios like death, the unknown and rapid changes to their daily lives.

Growing mental health demands from pandemic challenges

One of those unseen effects of the pandemic was the profound need for mental health care. As a 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation study reports, the share of U.S. adults who said worry and stress related to the coronavirus was having a negative impact on their mental health increased from 32% in March 2020 to 53% just four months later in July 2020.4 According to the report people were feeling impacts to their mental health from worries about getting sick, about their family members getting sick, and knowing people who died from COVID-19. Nearly one quarter of Black adults, one quarter of 18-29 year-olds, and one third of mothers responding to the report all reported that they needed and were unable to get mental health services. The number one barrier reported (27%) was that they could not find a provider, followed closely (23%) by not being able to afford the cost.4


Something often overlooked about mental health providers like therapists and counselors? They’re human too. As Mendoza writes in her article, providers like her and her colleagues weren’t spared from the damaging mental health effects of the pandemic. “The ways we communicated with others, offered services to clients, and sought and provided counselor education were rapidly moved to online modalities, despite many practicing clinicians having no previous experience with these modalities,” she writes.3

On the other side of individuals in need of mental health care unable to find providers were providers stretched thin and stressed by growing waitlists. Organizations providing any type of counseling service like social support and youth service organizations also saw a huge increase in demand, according to a 2021 report by the National Council for Behavioral Health.5 That report shows that low pay, increased client loads and restrictions in the way services could be offered quickly led to burnout for many mental health professionals. Around the same time USA Facts, an aggregator of government data, reported an estimated 122 million Americans, or about 37% of the U.S. population, lived in areas with a mental health professional shortage.6

How COVID-19 changed education for mental health providers

In the face of these challenges, the determined experts in the administration and faculty in the Department of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology at Marquette University knew they had to act.

“[We’re] acutely aware of the devastating effects of the provider shortage because areas in northern and western Wisconsin were, and continued to be, in extreme need,” Mendoza explains. “Even now, we recognize that there are too many populations underserved and too many organizations understaffed. Evidence also shows us that the pandemic has had a more devastating effect on marginalized populations.”

Mendoza says that although the COVID-19 pandemic initiated many negative changes, it also spurred a paradigm shift in the field. Led by its commitment to social justice and diversity and in an aim to help reduce the shortage and address the growing need for mental health care, Marquette University started the online version of its clinical mental health counseling program.

“In designing the program, we intentionally thought about the barriers that prevent students from obtaining a degree and took an active stance to address those obstacles,” Mendoza explains, “Specifically, we designed our program for working adults, creating a part-time program that can be completed in three years. We also offer courses later in the evenings to accommodate working adults because many students from marginalized populations must maintain full-time employment. And because the program is all remote, students do not have any travel expenses. This allows us to reach underserved areas in a multidimensional way: We train students who live in rural and underserved areas, which ultimately increases access to mental health care within those areas.”

Marquette’s counseling curriculum is designed for your success

The demand for mental health services spans generations, regions and backgrounds. Whether you want to work with youth beginning their journey navigating mental health, help combat the stigma of addiction and substance misuse or work with adults in inpatient facilities, you can provide a critical service to your community. If you’re interested in earning your degree in clinical mental health counseling online, talk to an Admissions Outreach Advisor for more information.

“We are poised to continue this growth,” Mendoza says, reflecting on the developments to Marquette’s program, “and [to] make a positive impact on the education of students across the nation, ensuring that all people have access to the mental health services they need and deserve.”