PSYCHOLOGY services in the Hunter are being stretched to the limit following a surge in demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As waiting lists for some psychology services have blown out to 10-to-12 weeks, many private practices have closed their books until next year as more people seek support to cope with a period of stress, uncertainty, and ongoing adjustment.
Novocastrians have reported calling up to five different practices in the region before finding a service still taking on new patients.
Hunter psychologists have told the Newcastle Herald the pandemic had put extra pressure on an already stressed and overwhelmed system - but that it was important people continued to reach out for help and support.
It comes as Lifeline confirmed it had experienced a record number of calls in its 57-year history - receiving a call every 30 seconds, and headspace Newcastle recorded its highest number of new referrals and new enquiries.
Dr Kathy Dynon, a clinical psychologist and co-director of Psychology One at Kotara, said they were experiencing a "terrible tension" as they attempted to accommodate existing clients with an increasing number of new referrals and returning clients.
"Many people who have struggled in the past are struggling again at the moment," she said. "And some people are struggling for the first time with that sense of uncertainty about their life and the future.
"I think the novelty has worn off, and because we can't see what the future looks like, or we can't see a timeframe to work through, people are just really struggling with that exhaustion and cumulative stress."
Anxiety and depression were the key reasons people sought help.
But the driving factors were varied.
Job loss, financial stress and relationship difficulties had been common issues in the high-pressure environment of the pandemic.
Dr Dynon said they had noticed a rise in the number of healthcare workers asking for help, and a large increase in adolescents seeking support - particularly those in year 11 and 12.
It was hard to turn anyone away.
"When someone rings up to see a psychologist for the first time, that is a pretty big deal," Dr Dynon said. "Often that is a big step for them, and we want to honour the effort they have made to make that phone call.
"So what we tend to do normally is either see them ourselves or refer them onto our trusted colleagues at a variety of other practices.
"But at the moment, everybody is pretty full.
"Our books are pretty well closed - we are telling people we can maybe fit them in in two or three months, but probably not until next year. Although we do try to squeeze people in when and where we can. People can always ask to be put on a cancellation list as well."
Lifeline, Beyond Blue and mindgym.com.au were good for interim support.
Dr Dynon was empathetic to policy makers, as it was a tricky problem to fix.
But more funding for public and community counselling services, extending telehealth services beyond September, and increasing the number of Medicare-supported psychology sessions would alleviate the pressure.
"We were already kind of in this situation pre-COVID. But COVID has really ramped it up even more," Dr Dynon said.
"The thing that has changed is that now, everybody is full.
"We don't have anywhere we feel we can send people on to. That's quite distressing, because you worry you're missing a window for an individual who is reaching out for support.
"You worry that if they feel hopeless or that there is no options, that they won't seek help again. That it might increase their suicide risk.
"And it puts pressure back onto GPs."
Dr Dynon said that as mental health presentations increased, the public health funding for it had not.
"But it is particularly bad in the Newcastle area because in 2014, the Community Health Psychology Service was shut down," she said.
"That was a catch-all service for people who weren't quite unwell enough for the mental health service, but who were too unwell for private practice - it covered this middle ground, and it was a really great service.
"That whole service got shut down and that has really left a big gap in our community. Only the most unwell people tend to be eligible for public mental health support now - that's part of the reason private practice is under a lot of pressure. We just don't have enough of us to see all the referrals."
Offering psychology services via telehealth had provided clients and clinicians with more freedom about how they could deliver and access services.
"I would dearly love to see telehealth continue. It seems a no-brainer," Dr Dynon said. "We also need more than 10 psychology sessions for the Australian public under Medicare. Ten sessions does the job for most people, but there is a smaller number of people that really require additional help. If someone is really struggling, the mental health service can't take them because they are full, they can't get any more Medicare rebates, so they can't afford further sessions.
"I have psychologists who feel they need to offer pro bono sessions because they are worried for that person's safety and well-being."
Dr Tarnya Davis, a clinical and forensic psychologist from NewPsych, said their books were still open but mental health services right around the country were "stretched to the limit".
"We were deathly quiet during the first few months of the pandemic, but now, I've been in practice for nearly 23 years and it has never been this busy," Dr Davis said. "We have never looked at closing our books before and we are trying really hard not to do that - but when clients are calling us they are saying everywhere they try no one has appointments for months down the track.
"COVID has been this great period of stress and uncertainty."
Dr Davis agreed telehealth psychology sessions should be extended. Relationship pressures during the pandemic had also prompted a surge in people seeking couples counselling.
"These past few months we have been inundated with people wanting to come in for couples work," she said.
"At a very rough guess, I'd say we'd had a doubling of requests. There are people working from home, or not working, and spending more time together. There is added pressure on your relationship when you are disconnected from other friends and outlets for socialising."
Dr Davis said many people were not able to do the things that helped them stay well - socialise, exercise, travel or take a holiday to manage work pressure.
Hunter Primary Care's Katrina Delamothe, and Philip Carr, of Psychology Services, said they had seen a "slight increase" in demand for COVID-related issues. But there was always "consistently high" demand for the Commonwealth-funded service.
"There are very, very few services that are free. And that's our brief - to be able to see people who otherwise couldn't afford to get care," Ms Delamothe said.
Lifeline: 13 11 14.
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