Psychiatrists in Short Supply

It's not the most talked-about kind of medicine. And often it's misunderstood. But for thousands of Alabamians, psychiatric care is a necessary part of life.

Now, recent statistics show there is a shortage of psychiatrists in Alabama. And many mental health facilities are understaffed. It's a trend the state is working to reverse.

At the Montgomery Area Mental Health Authority, patients are lucky if they see a psychiatrist even for just a few minutes.

"We can't hire enough psychiatrists to meet the demand that our consumers have," said the authority's clinical director, Stan Barnard.

Barnard  says the psych shortage means many patients now see non-doctors who are licensed to write prescriptions, like physician assistants and registered nurse practitioners.

At the state department of mental health, officials aren't surprised by the shortage. They say Alabama has the lowest number of psychiatrists per capita than almost any other state.

The statistics show there are 13.7 psychiatrists per 100,000 people nationwide. But in Alabama, that number drops to just 7.1 psychiatrists. Only Mississippi is lower with 6.1.

"There's a huge shortage across the southeastern United States actually," said the department of mental health's John Ziegler.

Ziegler says public mental health facilities are affected most by the shortage.

"We hope more people will choose the psychiatric profession as a career because there's a huge need and they make a big difference in people's lives," he said.

The state has already paid for new psych residencies at UAB and the University of South Alabama. It's also made it easier for psychiatrists to transfer their medical licenses to Alabama.

Now all that's left to do is wait.

Until the numbers increase, the mental health department is holding conferences around the state to better educate non-psychiatrists, who find themselves providing psychiatric care.

Reporter: Mark Bullock