Newsday's Steve Langford examines why there is a shortage of psychologists for children on Long Island as suicide rates rise. Credit: Newsday

As depression, anxiety and suicide rates rise among teenagers on Long Island and throughout the nation, a shortage in psychologists and therapists has led to difficulty securing appointments for treatment.

Waiting lists can be monthslong, if they're available at all. Some mental health professionals are working extra to try to meet demand, while some parents are taking their kids to appointments during school hours — the only time slots available.

And even if parents can find a therapist, their insurance might not cover it, or the therapist doesn’t accept insurance, period — meaning thousands of dollars in bills, experts said.

“There are so many parents that are looking for therapists for their kids right now, and they’re having so much trouble finding somebody that’s available,” said Melissa Rosenblatt, a child psychologist in Syosset.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Depression, anxiety and suicide rates have risen among teenagers on Long Island and throughout the nation.
  • A shortage in psychologists and therapists has led to difficulty securing appointments for mental health treatment for teenagers.
  • Waiting lists can be monthslong. Some mental health professionals are working extra hours to meet the demand. Working with insurance companies can be a time-consuming ordeal, professionals say, that many therapists don't use them.

Experts said factors causing the shortage include the long-running problem of a lack of therapists specializing in teens and children, increased stress among children stemming partly from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the willingness of more parents in general to seek help for their kids when there might have been a taboo around the topic in the past.

A six-month search for help

Michael Grady, a Suffolk County resident, said he spent six months searching for a therapist after his teenage daughter was discharged from a hospital program following a suicide attempt.

“I called dozens of counselors, social workers, and basically I got the same answer: 'We don’t take kids,' or most of them are just saying, ‘Sorry, my schedule is completely full,' " Grady said.

“I basically went through every counselor within a 15-mile radius that my insurance covered and I couldn’t find anybody,” he added. “I basically didn’t know what to do.”

Six months later, and after giving up for a few weeks, he finally stumbled onto a Town of Brookhaven therapy program that took her in.

'I want to help everybody, but I can’t.'

-Melissa Rosenblatt, a child psychologist in Syosset

Credit: Newsday/ John Paraskevas

Rosenblatt said she faces a staggering influx of parents like Grady who are seeking help. She has a waiting list that she called unprecedented in her eight years working as a child therapist on Long Island.

She gets 15 to 20 calls a week from parents looking for help for their children — and has to turn away the overwhelming majority because she is fully booked.

Some parents are so desperate, she said, that they pull their kids out of school to make it to appointments.

“I’ve had wait-lists before. Not like this,” Rosenblatt said, adding that she is “inundated” with calls. “I want to help everybody, but I can’t.”

Alarming increase in teen suicides

According to the American Psychological Association, only 4,000 of more than 100,000 clinical psychologists in the United States specialize in children or adolescents.

That also translates into a shortage of psychologists in schools. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of one school psychologist per 500 students, but estimates the current ratio nationwide is about one per 1,200 students.

“The schools are definitely understaffed in most cases and not necessarily doing a great job,” said Christopher Coluccio, of Blue Point, whose 14-year-old son, Chris, died by suicide in September 2021.

He and other advocates said help is desperately needed on Long Island, where experts have been alarmed by the number of recent suicides among teenagers and even younger children.

In the 2021-22 school year, five students, including an 11-year-old, died by suicide within a five-mile radius in Bayport-Blue Point, Patchogue and Ronkonkoma.

The problem is hardly confined to central Suffolk County, experts said, and extends from Montauk to Elmont.

The number of teenage suicides the nonprofit Family Service League responded to in Suffolk County tripled between 2020 and 2021, going from four to 12, Kathy Rosenthal, the group’s senior vice president, told Newsday earlier this year.

Nationwide, suicide is now the second-leading cause of death after unintentional injury among people from the ages of 10 to 34, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The number of people between the ages of 12 and 17 nationwide who experienced at least one major depressive episode increased by 306,000, or 1.4%, year-over-year, according to an October 2021 report from the Mental Health America nonprofit. At the same time, nearly 61% of New York youths with major depressive episodes did not receive treatment, the report said.

Ann Eckardt Erlanger, past president of the Suffolk County Psychological Association, has seen a spike in demand for mental health treatment for kids.

“We are certainly hearing from our membership that they are getting phone calls from people who are seeking services,” Erlanger said. “It’s not their first phone call by the time they’ve reached somebody. They’re on waiting lists. They’re having trouble finding people who … are going to take their insurance.”

Donna Thiele, a child psychologist in Bohemia, said depression, anxiety and other mental health issues were on the rise before the pandemic, fueled by factors such as heavy social media use and feelings of isolation.

'There are just more kids that are in need right now.'

-Donna Thiele, a child psychologist in Bohemia

Credit: James Carbone

But “the pandemic kind of gave it a turbo boost,” she said. “There are just more kids that are in need right now. There was kind of a shortage building up before the pandemic, and that really kind of exacerbated it.”

Her waiting list is three months — an unacceptable amount of time when a child is in crisis, she said.

Some psychologists and therapists said they are trying to fill the gap. Rosenblatt used to work until 7 p.m. on weekdays but now goes until 8 or 8:30. She also expanded her Saturday schedule from two or three hours to six to take in more patients.

But “there’s only so many kids I can see in a week,” she said.

She and Thiele said when families call them looking for help but they are booked, they try to connect them with other therapists.

“I don’t want anybody waiting for me, because if they need their child to get help, I want them to get help,” Rosenblatt said.

Grady, the Suffolk resident, said that after he looked in vain for a therapist for his daughter, he gave up searching for a few weeks.

Then he came across a Town of Brookhaven program generally meant to help homeless children with their mental health issues. His daughter was allowed to enter it in July because she had been an inpatient for psychiatric treatment at Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson and was considered “at risk.”

“It’s a frustrating process, and there’s really nobody that knows about it,” he said. “There’s nobody that tells you about the resources. You have to go and find them on your own.”

'Sometimes they are going through struggles and they put a happy face on but inside they are going through a lot.'

-Adriana Cardona, an East End mom waiting weeks for a therapist for her son

Credit: Randee Daddona

Adriana Cardona, an East End resident, said she has been waiting five weeks for a therapist for her 13-year-old son. A worker with the Latino advocacy organization OLA of Eastern Long Island, she said many children need therapists but hide the signs.

"Sometimes they are going through struggles and they put a happy face on, but inside they are going through a lot," she said. "There's a lot of turmoil."

Therapists not accepting insurance

Even if parents find a therapist who is available, paying for it can be another nightmare.

Many therapists — also including licensed clinical social workers — do not use insurance companies because they said it is a time-consuming ordeal that cuts severely into their core mission of treating patients. 

“I want to be devoting my time to therapy, not being on the phone with all these insurance companies for hours and hours,” Rosenblatt said.

She once relocated her office and it took the insurance company six months to get the proper address into the system — delaying payments, she said.

“It makes it so difficult because you spend hours and hours on the phone with them and then you still don’t get paid,” she said. “We all want to make therapy services accessible to everybody. The insurance companies have to be willing to work with us, and a lot of times they’re not. It’s very frustrating.”

Leslie Moran, a senior vice president with the New York Health Plan Association, an umbrella group representing 29 health insurance companies, said: “Our plans try very hard to work with providers to resolve issues to ensure children can get the mental health and behavioral health care that they need.”

She acknowledged the shortage of therapists, especially for children, but contended the situation is made worse when therapists choose not to accept insurance.

That “puts an extra burden on families that end up having to pay out of pocket for a covered benefit,” she said.

Typical out-of-pocket rates on Long Island range from $150 to $300 for a 45-minute session, Thiele said. For weekly sessions, that can add up quickly.

Grady said that even though he has an expensive insurance policy, he is still paying off more than $10,000 for services his daughter received at Mather’s inpatient program. The policy has a high deductible and did not cover much of the treatment.

“It’s a travesty,” he said. “I spend over $25,000 a year on the health insurance,” plus an $11,000 a year deductible, “and the amount that didn’t get covered is ridiculous.”