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If you need mental health therapy in Dallas-Fort Worth, get in line. A very long line

Watchdog Dave Lieber says a mental health crisis is sweeping across America. All our problems are catching up to us.

Scott Smith was having a dream. Actually, it was a dark nightmare.

The licensed professional counselor from Fort Worth dreamed that a man walked up to him and handed him a thick file.

“It’s now yours,” the man said in Smith’s dream.

The dossier consisted of photos and criminal reports of all the prospective clients Smith has turned away because his schedule is packed.

In his dream, he flipped through the material and saw children who were beaten, people who were arrested, individuals who committed suicide because of depression.

There were statements in the dossier about how the lack of professional help caused them to have these problems and endure this suffering.

Smith woke up. Sure, it was a dream, but it’s also true. In his 28-year career, Smith says he’s never seen it so difficult for people to find a therapist.

Now he’s the one doing the suffering. He feels terrible that he has to turn people away, and they can’t find a therapist to guide them. Two weeks ago, 15 people called him that he couldn’t help. This week, it was another 17. On the day I talked to him, he got five more.

“Clients are calling me and saying they can’t find anybody. They can’t get in. Everybody’s booked.”

‘Really struggling’

“No, he’s not alone. A large number of our professional counselors are really struggling.”

The speaker is Jan Friese, executive director of the Texas Counseling Association. She says therapists in Texas are overwhelmed with the unprecedented workload.

“Our school counselors say they have never seen the volume of mental health, trauma and abuse issues that they are seeing,” she says. “This existed before COVID-19, but COVID exacerbated it.”

‘Sorry, no openings’

It doesn’t take a therapist to diagnose Smith’s dream. But when I ask him what it means, he tells me that most nights, before he goes to bed, he calls back prospective clients and tells them sorry, there aren’t any openings.

“I wish there was something I could do to help these folks,” he says. “But there’s no way you can put 32 people into your caseload who’ve approached you in the last two weeks.

“During normal times, I wouldn’t have this volume trying to get in to see me. "

Abnormal times

It’s too much for one society. We’re in our second year dealing with COVID-19. National, state and local politics are way more intense than usual. The economy is topsy-turvy. And people are losing good jobs.

Families are arguing and friendships are lost. People who’ve had loved ones die of COVID-19 can’t bear listening to the denial crowd claiming it’s all a hoax. Others can’t decide whether to get vaccinated — or whether they should wear a mask.

“People need to get their emotions out,” Smith says. “Then it comes down to accepting the limitations of the world.”

‘People are pent up’

Crises are not new for Smith. He helped people in shock after 9/11, school shootings and even war. But he’s never seen a therapy shortage like this. Some therapists have adopted a no-new-patients rule. Smith hasn’t. He still tries to work in clients when he can.

People are desperate. “I see more substance abuse, more domestic violence, more child abuse,” he says. “People are bored. They don’t know what to do with themselves. People are pent up.”

He continues, “All of this has created a great deal of instability, and then when you throw in some of the political stuff like, ‘Is the vaccine a hoax?’ — people don’t know who to believe. Expert opinions are all over the place. People are just up in arms.”

‘Not just D/FW’

There’s a mental health vacuum in much of Texas.

“It’s not just Dallas-Fort Worth,” says Friese of the counselors association.

About half of the state’s counties don’t have a single psychiatrist. Many counties don’t have a psychologist or a counselor. The backlog is statewide.

Smith knows the nightmare is not going away soon.

“When I’m done with the workday, I don’t have much of a chance to unwind because you still have the mental stuff playing with your head.

“I wish I had a job sometimes where I was doing something like waiting tables or screwing bolts in sheet metal, because at the end of the day you can punch out. But with this, you don’t really punch out.”

Finding a therapist

- Contact your health insurance provider and ask for therapists in network.

- In an emergency, visit the ER of a local hospital.

- Call the Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas 24/7 line: 214-828-1000.

- Use Psychology Today’s find-a-therapist tool: psychologytoday.com/us/therapists.

- Keep calling therapists, trying to find one who can work you in.

- Sometimes people find help in self-help groups, online research, books, spirituality and religion.

- The Texas Counseling Association suggests contacting state lawmakers and members of Congress and asking them to increase funding for mental health resources.

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The Dallas Morning News Watchdog column is the 2019 winner of the top prize for column writing from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. The contest judge called his winning entries “models of suspenseful storytelling and public service.”

Read his winning columns:

* Helping the widow of Officer J.D. Tippit, the Dallas police officer killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, get buried beside her late husband

* Helping a waitress who was harmed by an unscrupulous used car dealer

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog investigative columnist. Dave has written a hard-hitting newspaper column in Dallas/Fort Worth since 1993. His work appears twice a week. His goal is to save readers time, money and aggravation. In 2019, Dave won top prize in America's largest column-writing contest. The contest judge called his winning entries “models of suspenseful storytelling and public service."

davelieber@dallasnews.com /dave.lieber @DaveLieber
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