As demand for mental health support surges during the pandemic, trainee psychologists are struggling to complete their qualifications, prompting many to drop out of their studies.
The issue, which is exacerbating wait times for patients, is being caused by a bottleneck in the pathway to registration caused by intense competition for postgraduate places, says Australian Psychological Society president Tamara Cavenett.
"We're basically in the perverse situation with thousands of psychology students dropping out having already done four to five years of study, just (because) there aren't places in the final one to two years," Ms Cavenett told AAP.
"We're educating them and investing all this money in them up to a point and then not finishing it off at a time of incredible demand."
As well as a four-year undergraduate program, registered psychologists need another two years which typically consists of a mix of study and supervised practice.
Undergraduates have historically had the option of a two-year internship as well as passing the National Psychology Exam as an alternative, but this path is closing from June.
"Changing that requirement is actually a very good thing, we'll have much better trained psychologists coming out ... the trouble is we need more places," says Marjorie Collins, president of the Institute of Clinical Psychologists.
Excluding internships, just 10 per cent of a class of 200 psychology undergraduates typically find a postgraduate place in Western Australia, she says.
"If there was more government funding for the postgraduate courses, (universities) will be able to produce more psychologists because they're very popular programs," she says.
Australian Clinical Psychological Association president Caroline Hunt runs a masters program at the University of Sydney.
"You have accreditation requirements that say students have to do placements, they have to do these first through a university clinic (and) they need intensive supervision," Prof Hunt says.
"Universities can't afford to run too many because of the problem with the funding. The situation is worse for more specialised training, such as clinical psychology. Those places are even more rare. We are turning away these students in the hundreds."
Part of the problem is tied to government support, says Prof Hunt, with Commonwealth funding for courses like medicine sitting at $27,000 annually, compared to postgraduate psychology at just $13,250.
She's calling for an urgent funding injection.
There is also a shortage of external clinical placements and supervisors in public mental health, and the association is advocating for the government to create more spaces.
If workforce issues are to be addressed, Prof Hunt says education pathways must be financially viable for universities and their students.
Should the government increase funding, she says education providers could pivot reasonably quickly by drawing on the pool of students who have already done an undergraduate degree.
"There are various elements that need to be considered, but funding is one that can be quickly identified and solved," she says.
"With a tiny investment we could double the number of clinical psychologists in less than one to two years - imagine what that means to Australians who are needing care."
As the bottlenecks stifle a generation of trainee psychologists, wait times for patients are getting longer and many psychologists are closing their books to new clients.
Late last year, a survey of Australian Psychological Society members showed one in three were unable to take on new clients.
The figure was one in five in June 2021, and prior to the pandemic it was just one in 100.
"Everyone knows what it's like to have a family member that needs help and has finally agreed to it," says Ms Cavenett, from the Australian Psychological Society.
"To know that you've got months and months of waiting sitting in front of you ... that's just demoralising and it means that you'll just give up."
Without timely support, mental health can decline further and require more treatment, with flow on effects often impacting relationships and jobs.
With nowhere else to turn, those needing help often end up in hospital emergency departments.
The federal government committed over $1.3 billion in response to mental health impacts of the pandemic, and doubled the number of Medicare-subsidised psychological services available through the Better Access Initiative from 10 to 20.
Should Labor win the election, it plans to reinstate a 50 per cent regional loading for telehealth psychiatry through Medicare, providing access to bulk billed telehealth consultations across regional Australia.
Australian Associated Press
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