The mental health crisis in America is at a critical inflection point, yet a frustrating mismatch exists. There simply aren't enough psychiatrists now or in the near-term pipeline to provide care for all the patients who need it.
The situation is challenging, with more than half of U.S. counties lacking a single psychiatrist, according to a 2018 study by the University of Michigan Behavioral Health Workforce Research Center1 nurse practitioners are helping increase access to much-needed care by taking on a larger role in the diagnosis, treatment and management of patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) and other types of mental illness.
Health care workforce is adapting to meet mental health needs
Today about 6.5 percent of the more than 355,000 licensed nurse practitioners in the U.S. have a certification in psychiatric/mental health.2 Working together with care teams that often include psychiatrists, nurse practitioners can provide therapy and, in many states, can also prescribe medications to patients with mental health conditions like depression.
While mental health specialists account for a small percentage of all nurse practitioners, interest in the field is growing. PMHNP programs produced 13,000 new providers between 2012 and 2022.3 During that time, nearly 100 new PMHNP programs sprung up in schools of nursing in the U.S.
Meanwhile, some research predicts that without interventions, the workforce of available psychiatrists will shrink through 2024, resulting in a shortage of between 14,280 and 31,091 psychiatrists.4,5 Factors contributing to the shortfall include “steady population growth and the retirement of more than half the current workforce."
Though the researchers expect to see a slow expansion begin, they say it's “unclear whether the shortage will completely resolve by 2050."
Nurse practitioners are already stepping up to help patients in a big way. One study found that from 2011 to 2019, the proportion of all mental health prescriber visits by nurse practitioners increased from 12.5 percent to 29.8 percent, and even exceeded 50 percent in rural, full-scope-of-practice regions.6
One of the study's authors told a publication, “We were surprised by the degree to which [nurse practitioners] are the de facto mental health prescribers in parts of the country."
Employing a holistic approach to care
These skilled providers are caring for patients in both clinical settings and remotely via telehealth.7
One superpower of the group—and of nurse practitioners in general—is their increasing embrace of the biopsychosocial model of care for patients.
The model promotes a provider-patient relationship through a practitioner's deeper understanding of the patient's perspective of their medical illness. It also recognizes that integrating the biological, psychological and social aspects of care is critical for helping patients manage their health challenges.
Nurse practitioners are improving the lives of people across the country who have begun the often long and complicated journey to get help for mental health challenges, including major depressive disorder. After all, while getting a depression diagnosis can be scary, finding a health care provider who can help address low mood, trouble sleeping, and other concerning symptoms is vital to helping people with depression get the care they need.
If you're concerned about signs of depression, it’s important to talk to your health care provider. If you are having suicidal thoughts, dial 911 or seek emergency care immediately. U.S. residents can also reach the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988.
1 University of Michigan Behavioral Health Workforce Research Center. Estimating the Distribution of the U.S. Psychiatric Subspecialist Workforce. Ann Arbor, MI: UMSPH; 2018.
2 NP Fact Sheet. American Association of Nurse Practitioners. (2022, November). https://www.aanp.org/about/all-about-nps/np-fact-sheet
3 https://www.aanp.org/news-feed/five-health-care-trends-to-watch-in-2023. American Association of Nurse Practitioners. (2023, January 18). https://www.aanp.org/news-feed/five-health-care-trends-to-watch-in-2023
4 Satiani A, Niedermier J, Satiani B, Svendsen DP. Projected Workforce of Psychiatrists in the United States: A Population Analysis. Psychiatr Serv. 2018 Jun 1;69(6):710-713. doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.201700344. Epub 2018 Mar 15. PMID: 29540118.
5 DP; S. A. J. B. (n.d.). Projected workforce of psychiatrists in the United States: A population analysis. Psychiatric services (Washington, D.C.). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29540118/
6 Footnote: Cai A, Mehrotra A, Germack HD, Busch AB, Huskamp HA, Barnett ML. Trends In Mental Health Care Delivery By Psychiatrists And Nurse Practitioners In Medicare, 2011-19. Health Aff (Millwood). 2022 Sep;41(9):1222-1230. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2022.00289. PMID: 36067437; PMCID: PMC9769920.