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Mental health professionals are going through a major burnout. But this app could help

This clinic knew therapists needed support, so they created the Noble app

SHARE Mental health professionals are going through a major burnout. But this app could help
The illustration is of a therapist and a long line of patients.

An illustration of a therapist and a long line of patients.

Illustration by Zoe Peterson, Deseret News

Everything is on the rise, from suicide, depression and anxiety to domestic violence and substance abuse, said Brett Williams, 62, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

“Society is falling apart in a handbasket,” he said. “And the problem is thankless.”

Williams, a second-generation therapist, works at Addo Recovery clinic in Utah. He has been in this line of work for 35 years and he loves to help people. But with the pandemic, he’s noticed many more individuals struggling. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration saw a 27% increase in calls in 2020 from 2019 from individuals and family members facing mental disorders like anxiety, depression and addiction.

Even though he has no complaints about his packed weekly schedule of appointments and paperwork, he feels a sense of burnout.

“There are so many people that need help. I just can’t. ... I just can’t help them,” he said. “People are suffering because there’s just not enough therapists and not enough time in the world to help.”

Amid increasing demand for mental health care, a recent study shows that as many as 78% of therapists self-reported burnout during the pandemic, while another study indicated that the need for mental health professionals will increase by 10% by 2026. This increasing demand is met with a limited number of therapists available to help.

To provide therapists with support and patients with additional resources, Williams’ colleagues at Noble clinic, a sister clinic for mental health services in Utah, created an app.

Williams’ clinic has a waiting list — an average wait time of two weeks. Worst case scenario — a month. When medication is involved, it becomes much harder.

“I can’t get my clients into a psychiatrist for six months easy. So, that’s really a bad, bad scenario,” said Williams.

He works 25 to 30 hours a week conducting sessions and spends the rest of the time booking individual and group sessions, rescheduling sessions, writing patient notes and filing piles of insurance paperwork. Most therapists work a similar schedule “because it’s so emotionally intensive,” he said.

Williams’ workload was evident as we went back and forth over email to schedule an interview; his latest available slot was at 5 p.m. On one occasion, I called him at that time only to catch him going to a men’s therapy group, which ended at 9 p.m.

A few of his clients require more attention and he checks in with them multiple times a week. A majority of them are in “crisis mode,” as Williams calls it, a state where they want to make improvements to their lives.

He deals with all types of situations, from couples and individuals to adults and children. As of late, there’s been a common theme among his patients: All of them are more anxious.

Williams said that while most clients have one session a week, they usually require more. It’s essentially about practice, he explained — If the goal was to become a great ice skater, you would have to hit the ice at least a few times a week. The tools that mental health professionals provide also need to be exercised as much as possible.

The big question becomes — how to provide extensive support to patients while not putting more burden on therapists? This is where the new app comes in.

The Noble app is a one-stop for therapy patients, acting as a self-guided curriculum between sessions to help mental health professionals get to the problem sooner and build deeper connections with patients. It also provides resources on a range of topics like anxiety, addiction, depression, parenting, infidelity and more.

“In my own life, I’ve experienced the impact of suicide, addictions and other mental health issues. I know firsthand that these issues are not only tough to overcome, but are also tough to support,” said Eric Red, co-founder of Noble.

“Therapists and other mental health professionals don’t get the credit they deserve or support they need,” he said.

The app gives clients “homework” that they can do when not in session. For example, if someone is dealing with anxiety, a mental health professional will try to help them feel safe. An exercise to try, explained Dr. Kevin Skinner, a licensed therapist and co-founder of Noble, would be to do a breathing exercise and measure their experience to assess how effective the technique is. Or it could be a journaling exercise where the patient shares their thoughts with another person, giving a voice to what’s making them anxious.

Patients can put it in the work, in between sessions, on the app that provides supplemental tools and resources, creates a more interactive client experience and tracks client progress, taking some of the burdens off the therapist.

“By taking care of ourselves, therapists are able to recharge and reenergize, so we can continue dedicating our time to helping people be the best versions of themselves,” said Skinner, who has been in the profession for 20 years.

There are many other apps that people can use for mental health support like Talkspace, Better Help, iBreathe, Happify, Moodkit, Better Stop Suicide, Recovery Record and NOCD. Some of these are free while others offer an affordable monthly subscription.

These apps is a great step toward building a reliable set of tools for those seeking help and those providing that help. But more can be done, especially during a widespread mental health crisis.

Even though Congress has appropriated relief funds to address the growing issue that has escalated during the pandemic, a comprehensive bill that tackles the crisis is still under consideration.

“There’s no single problem with mental health in this country and so, therefore, there’s no single solution. Congress has made a lot of investments. We need to look at a multifaceted way to support Americans’ health and well-being,” House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairwoman Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said during a Feb. 17 hearing, according to Roll Call.

Fighting for a package with a decent money figure that can address the issue may be hard as lawmakers have other pressing concerns right now.

For Williams, money isn’t the only answer.

“How much can we throw money at a problem? I think education is what we need to go in to help people feel like they’re normal,” Williams said. “They’re normal to say, ‘Hey, I’m not doing well. I have depression or anxiety.’ That doesn’t mean they're broken.”