What Is a Therapy Desert?

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Considering the number of people seeking therapy, in some areas, there may be a therapist shortage aka a 'therapy desert.'

Therapy Desert

Therapy deserts are regions in the United States where mental health care is scarce. Often located in rural areas, these areas leave those in need of mental health care left on their own. This can result in a complete inability to access care or a long journey to the nearest clinic.

This article will explore why therapy deserts exist, their impact on others, and how you can seek support if you live in a therapy desert. 

Why Therapy Deserts Exist

Rural areas are known for having fewer resources in general. In some areas, it isn’t uncommon to drive over an hour to get groceries or live even further from emergency medical care resources. Mental health care is no exception.

Therapy deserts are a complex combination of:

  • Location
  • Income
  • Education level

Location

Let’s begin with exploring how location ties into therapy deserts. So, consider non-rural states. These states include multiple large cities, like California and New York. These states are not at risk of having a therapy desert because they have plenty of large universities, varying income levels, and cities with more residents than rural states.

Now, think about states with a lower population and no densely populated cities, like Wyoming or Alabama. While they have universities in these cities, these cities may not be as large as the ones in California and New York.

Fewer People Equals Fewer Therapists

When there are simply fewer people in a state, there will be fewer care providers.

Income and Education Level

Income and education level is inevitably tied to location. For example, child psychiatrists are less likely to practice in low-income counties. Additionally, they are more likely to practice in areas with higher numbers of people with advanced education.

Again, this can be attributed to the resources available in certain areas. Mental health practitioners often work in the regions where they attended their educational programs. Therefore, areas with significantly fewer educational programs are less likely to attract mental health practitioners.

Furthermore, low-income areas may not compensate a practitioner as well as a higher-income area might, thus leaving the practitioner with less incentive to operate in a rural, lower-income area. 

How Therapy Deserts Impact People

Put simply, therapy deserts leave those who need mental health care services at risk, and the population of those who need mental health care is only increasing.

Mental Health Disorders Continue to Be On the Rise

In 2020, Mental Health America recorded data from its online screening program. This program allows those seeking care to engage in a screening process and connect to resources immediately. The data gathered from this program was staggering.

The number of those using the screening to access services to treat anxiety increased by 93% from 2019 to 2020.

Suicidal ideation and self-harming behavior is also of great concern where 37% of participants stated they had suicidal thoughts for more than half the week or nearly every single day in September 2020. 

People Who Need Mental Healthcare Cannot Access It

A 2019-study found that 70% of counties in the United States don’t have a child psychiatrist. This statistic alone is staggering because it illuminates that the phenomenon of mental health care deserts isn’t only devastating for adults, but it negatively impacts our children as well.

This same study found that 1 in 5 children lives in a county without a child psychiatrist and those in lower socio-economic regions are particularly at risk of not having access to a child psychiatrist.

It can take a lot of courage to seek out mental health care. Stigma, high levels of cost, and the process of finding a provider who is a good fit for you can feel insurmountable. So, navigating these hurdles is a feat in and of itself.

What to Do If You Live in a Therapy Desert

Things may feel particularly bleak if you’re situated in a therapy desert. However, there are still ways for you to access care.

Try Teletherapy

Teletherapy has become increasingly common, and some providers choose to get licensed in multiple states to increase access to care. If you’re not finding any in-person therapy options, consider heading over to your favorite therapy directory to see if there’s anyone licensed in your state.

Many Therapists Are Licensed in Several States

Folks licensed in one state but live in another will typically appear in the search results for the state they are licensed in. If you find a provider who states they’re licensed in multiple states, including yours, you just may be in luck and can access their services virtually. If you hold a consultation with them and they’re not the right fit, don’t hesitate to ask them if they know of someone who could help meet your needs.

Other Resources

If you’re still struggling to find support, consider looking into a online therapy program:

  • Online-therapy.com is a program that offers digital cognitive-behavioral therapy to folks living around the globe.
  • BetterHelp is the largest online therapy service that's available to individuals, couples, and teens.
  • Talkspace is another online therapy program available to individuals worldwide.
  • Headway lists a directory of therapists available to you based on your insurance. Some providers offer online sessions.

While these programs aren’t a fit for every mental health concern, they may be able to provide some much-needed relief while you search for a long-term solution. 

A Word From Verywell

While it may be challenging to find a therapist when you live in a therapy desert, it isn’t impossible, and there is hope. That being said, there are times when a crisis arises and care is needed immediately.

If you’re experiencing an emergency, head to the nearest hospital or dial 911. Should you be experiencing a mental health crisis and need extra support getting connected to resources, dial 988.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The New York Times. 'Nobody Has Openings': Mental Health Providers Struggle to Meet Demand.

  2. National Geographic. COVID-19 is Taking a Heavy Toll in America’s Mental Health Care Deserts.

  3. Mental Health America. The State of Mental Health 2021.

  4. McBain RK, Kofner A, Stein BD, Cantor JH, Vogt WB, Yu H. Growth and distribution of child psychiatrists in the united states: 2007–2016. Pediatrics. 2019;144(6):e20191576. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-1576

By Julia Childs Heyl
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.