My Tween Is Ready for Mental Health Services Now, but the Waitlist Is 6 Months

Parents across the country are struggling to get mental health care for their tweens and teens. Experts say that by 2025 there will be 10,000 fewer therapists than Americans need.

Young boy talking to adult and looking stressed
Photo: Getty

They say that parenting would be much easier if it came with instructions. And despite a saturated book market that lures parents to adopt one method of child-rearing over another, there is not a single book of answers that can solve every problem, despite how desperately I have needed one. Like when my oldest child hit his tween years just as a significant shortage of therapists hit the U.S.

My son is stepping into his teenage years after spending his brief and impressionable tween years missing out on critical social milestones thanks to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic that upended our lives. And as he does so, the world around him that ought to be opening up and revealing wonderful things is instead turning out to be apocalyptic.

In the past year alone, two separate school shooter threats left us in a panic. Other parents pulled their kids out of school to homeschool or transferred them to a different school, including some of my son's best friends he's known his whole life. And the rippling wake of two years of learning remotely and being socially isolated to varying degrees has left invisible scars.

Like any concerned parent, I reached out to local therapists to see if I could schedule an appointment for my son. Perhaps if he had someone to talk to, we could interrupt this slide toward depression. But every office I called offered to place us on a waiting list for six or more months before they turned us away.

From the perspective of one overbooked therapist I tried to get an appointment with, my son's problem is that he isn't a danger to himself or others. In other words, unless my child can demonstrate a more immediate crisis-like need for mental health services, I am out of luck and must look elsewhere.

I'm not alone; there are thousands of other families facing a therapist shortage. In fact, it has become so bad that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that there will be a shortage of 10,000 mental health professionals by 2025. More families like mine will be placed on waiting lists, hoping and praying that nothing goes sideways while waiting for interventions and mental health care.

Surely, seeing a private therapist isn't the only way to ease mental health issues, I told myself. So, I tried looking for a few alternative routes to help my child since I can't get him into a therapist's office anytime soon. Here are a few things I tried for my son.

Telehealth Therapists

There are lots of wonderful telehealth services available out there, but finding one that caters to tweens and teens and that doesn't also have a long wait list can be a challenge. The perk of this option is that the fees are often less than the in-person visits, and the anxiety of talking to a person is defused by the option of texting, Zooming, or calling. My son found the idea of texting with a therapist less intimidating and asked to try that. Unfortunately, we never found a telehealth therapist who specializes in tweens and teens who would be available in the next few months.

Family Doctor

Feeling frustrated but undeterred, I reached out to my child's doctor for help. Our family doctor has known my children since they were very young, and so I trusted her to help us find a path toward help. We made an appointment, and she screened my son to make sure his issues aren't physical, and then she attempted to refer us to a local therapist. We were hoping that since this was a referral, it would bump us up the long lists, but unfortunately, no.

She did give us some parting advice to help alleviate at least some of the mental health stuff going on.

  • Make healthy sleep habits a priority.
  • Reduce screen time and put a blue light filter on my son's devices.
  • Make eating healthy options a high priority.
  • Add daily vitamin supplements to his diet.
  • Sign up for something (anything) to get him interacting with others his age.

We followed her advice, paid closer attention to food, sleep, and vitamins, and signed my son up for martial arts classes. But he was still wilting. And I was still worried.

School Counselor

School counselors, in my experience, are not therapists, but they can offer resources and create connections when kids need help. Knowing this, I reached out to my son's school counselor and gave them a rundown of what I have observed and why I feel like my kiddo could use a therapist. I was told that yes, there is a huge waiting list, but that my son could always talk to the school counselor if he needed to, and they could try to connect him to appropriate services.

Other Parents

I reached out privately to other parents and was astonished to learn that they, too, were butting up against a brick wall when it came to getting a therapist for their kids. None of us have kids in crisis, but each of us has children with real mental health problems that need to be addressed before those problems get to a crisis level. These other parents were trying to DIY their way through the issues that their kids were going through, and that inspired me to try the same. What else can I do?

Self-Help Books

I must confess that there is an allure to self-help books that I find comforting. Somewhere in between the pages of this or that title, a trained professional swears they can help. I ordered a workbook for my son called Anxiety Relief for Teens: Essential CBT Skills and Mindfulness Practices to Overcome Anxiety and Stress by Regine Galanti, Ph.D. In it, we learned practical ways to recognize stress and anxiety triggers and build up a toolbox of skills for how to handle them. Did it cure whatever ails my child's mental health? No, not all the way. But it certainly helped him to come out of his shell a bit more and to breathe a little freer.

We're still on a waiting list to see a therapist so my son can talk to someone who is trained to help kids his age and with symptoms similar to his. In the meantime, we're trying our best with what we've got; a lot of commiserating parents and kids, some self-help books, and crossed fingers.

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