Best (and worst) states for access to mental health care: How does yours stack up?


A prominent academic psychologist published an article in 2011 that shed light on "the person power problem" in mental health: There are far too many people in need of mental health services and far too few professionals available to provide those services. 

The author called for a dramatic shift in the development and dissemination of evidence-based mental health interventions, away from the traditional model of one-on-one, weekly psychotherapy (the article focused on psychological interventions), and toward novel solutions that leverage technology, special settings, self-help, media, and more.

Hers reports that, more than a decade later, the problem continues—nearly a third of the U.S. population lives in a mental health professional shortage area, according to the Health Resources Service Administrators. These are the states that are affected the most.

3 States With the Greatest Shortage of Mental Health Professionals

In the states with the greatest shortages, less than 11% (on average) of the population's mental health needs are being met. 

    • Arizona
    • Delaware
    • Alaska

3 States With the Most Access to Mental Health Professionals

In the states faring best, about 60% (on average) of the population's mental health needs are being met.

    • New Jersey
    • Rhode Island
    • Utah

That's a dramatic difference. 

Mental health professional shortage areas are primarily based on the availability of psychiatrists. 

Estimates from the HRSA indicate there will be a shortage of between 6,080 and 15,400 psychiatrists in 2025. Likely hundreds to thousands more psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, and professional counselors are necessary, as well. 

Mental health needs are only increasing, with over 20% of American adults living with some mental illness. The inability to meet their needs is becoming a matter of life and death. 

Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control show that that the number of suicide deaths last year was the highest ever recorded—exceeding the previous record by over 1,000 deaths.

How to Access Mental Health Care Now

Though shortages still exist, the mental health field has come a long way in the past decade. It has expanded the suite of interventions to include self-help, peer support, group therapy, and coaching. There are stepped-care delivery models that drive individuals to the least resource intensive yet effective intervention available. The care is based on individual preferences and clinical severity, allowing licensed and specialty providers to focus on those with higher acuity and severity. 

It also is now possible for individuals to receive care via telehealth. And legislative changes, such as the Psychology Interjurisdictional Compact (PSYPACT), allow providers to practice telepsychology across state lines.

 Those in need can currently find help:

    • By speaking with their primary care physician about their symptoms and treatment options.
    • By checking with their insurance carrier about mental health coverage and in-network options.
    • By looking into reputable mental health providers for convenient, private, and clinically rigorous care.

What You Can Do if You Live in a Location with Limited Access to Mental Health Care

If you live in a location with limited access to licensed mental health providers, there are still ways to get access to evidence-based support:

    • Consider telehealth. Telehealth is an increasingly available option that enables those in need to access timely, convenient, evidence-based care. With telehealth, you have access to a wider pool of available providers, since you don't have to worry about distance and transportation.
    • If you're looking to engage in therapy, check whether your state belongs to PSYPACT. If it does, you can consider treatment from a provider who is licensed in a PSYPACT state, even if that provider is not in the same state as you.

What Else Can Be Done to Increase Access to Mental Health Care

It's complicated, but here are some ideas. 

    • Increase the adoption of telehealth services. Two-thirds of shortage areas are in rural parts of the country. Telehealth would make it more likely that individuals in those areas are able to access care. Furthermore, telehealth services are well positioned to overcome the barriers that often keep people from getting the care they need, such as long wait times and stigma.
    • Expand the existing provider workforce by creating incentives for individuals to specialize in mental health. Incentives can range from scholarship and loan repayment programs to mentorship programs to relocation programs.
    • Expand the pool of non-licensed professionals (coaches, community health workers, peer support specialists, etc.) who can be trained to educate and support individuals with mental health needs. 
    • Continue to develop robust, user-friendly, evidence-based self-help resources that could help those with mild to moderate mental health concerns manage their distress.

Everyone deserves access to quality care. You may be in the midst of a mental health crisis, and you may live in an area with a dire shortage of mental health providers, but there are options. 

Mental Health Care Health Professional Shortage Areas by State: Ranked From Highest Percentage of Need Met to Lowest

How does your state stack up?

    1. New Jersey
    1. Rhode Island
    1. Utah
    1. New Hampshire
    1. Nebraska
    1. Georgia
    1. Virginia
    1. Wyoming
    1. Massachusetts
    1. Mississippi
    1. District of Columbia
    1. Wisconsin
    1. Pennsylvania
    1. Iowa
    1. Colorado
    1. Arkansas
    1. Oklahoma
    1. South Carolina
    1. Michigan
    1. Indiana
    1. Ohio
    1. Texas
    1. Idaho
    1. Nevada
    1. Oregon
    1. Minnesota
    1. Montana
    1. South Dakota
    1. Louisiana
    1. Kansas
    1. Alabama
    1. Kentucky
    1. California
    1. North Dakota
    1. Illinois
    1. Florida
    1. Maine
    1. Connecticut 
    1. Maryland
    1. New Mexico
    1. Washington
    1. Tennessee
    1. New York
    1. Hawaii
    1. West Virginia
    1. Missouri
    1. North Carolina
    1. Alaska
    1. Delaware
    1. Arkansas

Notes: Based on July 2023 data. Data for Vermont is unavailable.

Jessica Yu has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Rutgers University

This story was produced by Hers and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.