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National shortage of mental health therapists being felt in Sacramento

National shortage of mental health therapists being felt in Sacramento
National shortage of mental health therapists being felt in Sacramento 04:06

SACRAMENTO - Health experts say that long before the pandemic rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide were already on the rise.

The pandemic just aggravated the problem. To make matters worse, there's a nationwide therapist shortage.

We dug into one here in our region. So, what's happening in our communities, and can local agencies recruit and retain experienced therapists?

For some answers, we turned to two experts and two young adults who've witnessed it firsthand.

"I say for like parents out there I say to just listen to your kid...'cuz you don't know what's going on," said Ayinde.

Ayinde and Ja'Maiyeh
Ayinde and Ja'Maiyeh (l-r)

Eighteen-year-old Ayinde is speaking from the heart and experience. The student from Natomas used to run with the wrong crowd. The misbehaving escalated to serious charges for him.

"Like, it was like, vandalism and trespassing, so I was on probation for 6 months," he said.

Ayinde spent three years in a juvenile justice program and was discharged a few months ago.

Then there's 18-year-old Ja'maiyeh from Rancho Cordova. At a young age, she experienced family trauma and became homeless at 12. Both of their cases were referred to Stanford Sierra Youth and Families, one of the largest non-profit agencies that provide mental health services in northern California.

Dr. Laura Heintz runs the facility.

"We serve approximately 2,500 children a year but what we touch is 6,500 youth and families," she said.

And with a high demand for mental health support, agencies that provide those services can't seem to fill open positions.

Dr. Ryan Quist is the behavioral health director in Sacramento County. He tells us he finds it hard to compete with other employers.

"Our services...we serve the more seriously mentally ill folks and we have to do that in person," said Quist.

According to County Health Rankings and Roadmaps in 2021, there was one mental health provider for every 240 people in Sacramento County.

At Stanford Sierra Youth and Families, their therapist-to-patient ratio averages 1 to 25. They're also dealing with staff shortages. Currently, there are 36 openings. It's a far cry from the nearly 70 open positions last November.


So what's working for Dr. Heintz? Therapists at her agency can telehealth with patients -- something the county health department simply can't do.

She also offers her staff self-care services. But the key to her overall success is working with the entire family.

We wondered: Can the accomplishments at Stanford Sierra Youth and Families work in other parts of the country?

"Our hope is to replicate the work of the family and youth voice at the center...but across the nation," said Heintz.

Ja'maiyeh and Ayinde are two success stories. Ja'maiyeh recently graduated from Walnutwood High School in Rancho Cordova and Ayinde from Pacific Career and Technology in North Highlands.

Both are paying it forward by volunteering at Stanford Sierra Youth and Families.

"I don't owe it but, like, they deserve it like 'cuz I came from that and I know how it feels," said Ayinde.

Ja'maiyeh now has housing and is looking for a place of her own.

When we asked what advice she'd give herself as that young 12-year-old child, she replied: "I would start off by telling her that I'm very proud of her...I would advise her to keep her head up."

The nationwide shortage of therapists is having a profound impact on our society. If you have a child who is struggling with mental health and needs help immediately, get them help from the suicide crisis lifeline by calling or texting 988. You can also find a list of additional mental health resources here:

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