People living with mental health issues in the South West are being told they have to wait until 2022 to see a psychologist in the region — if they are not turned away altogether. GPs in Bunbury have reported clients experiencing wait times that make it impossible to book a session for the remainder of the year. The issue has become so bad referrals are being sent back by psychology practices who say they cannot take any new clients. Bunbury Psychological Services managing director and principal psychologist Julie-Anne Davies said the problem has been festering in the region for the last 12 months. “Our practise has had to turn people away and have liaised with GPs and other referral agencies highlighting the bottleneck,” she said. “As clinicians who have chosen the path of working in the helping professions it is indeed distressing having to turn them away knowing there are very few options elsewhere for them.” Ms Davies said people who wanted to see a psychologist have usually exhausted all other ways of solving their problems. “It is our experience that for the majority of the time when a client makes the call for assistance, it is when they are feeling at their most vulnerable and ideally, they would like to be seen within a few days,” she said. Bunbury resident Marianne de Vries had to wait four months to see a psychologist after being released from hospital and said it was daunting to not get the help she needed. Ms de Vries, who said she is now in remission and has not needed hospitalisation thanks to the support she recieved, said she needed to plan for the worst in the times she did not have an appointment in the near future. “I have an disability employment co-ordinator, friends on speed dial, nurses, social workers,” she said. “I have people who will talk me off the ledge at any point. I have to engage all of them, otherwise sometimes there would be no getting to the next appointment. “There were times where I would be self-harming on a daily basis to regulate my emotions. There were times were I thought I was going to end up back in hospital. “There were times were I would self-medicate. You don’t know when things are going to flare up. Just a bad day where I cannot see my psychologist and things can spiral. “I rely very heavily on my relationship with my psychologist to allow me to do all the things most people take for granted.” Another Bunbury resident, who did not want to be named, said they had also experienced long delays. “I had to wait seven weeks to get in to see a psychiatrist and then when I had to book in my follow up appointment the earliest available was six weeks after the first appointment,” they said. “The wait times really added to the struggle I was having. “For the most part I needed urgent care, but because I wasn’t at risk of harm I needed to wait. “It seems like you need to be suicidal or at risk of harming others to be seen quickly.” Relationships Australia is the lead agency for headspace Bunbury, Busselton and Margaret River and senior manager for mental health services Janalie Nelson said longer wait times could cause further damage. “It increases the psychological distress if people have to wait. Circumstances can deteriorate without an intervention and sometimes people move from being ‘at-risk’ to being ‘high risk’ due to the ongoing psychological distress,” she said. “It is really tough. They have to rely on family members, which is hard for family members because they sometimes struggle with resources and not knowing the right thing to do.” The Federal Government doubled the amount of Medicare-subsidised sessions available with a Mental Health Treatment Plan from 10 to 20 last October. Health Minister Greg Hunt said at the time there had been a 15 per cent increase in mental health services delivered since March 2020. But Mrs Nelson said while the increased sessions had helped people deal with the distress, they had also contributed to increased wait times. “I think that is what has partly lead to the bottleneck,” she said. “People that were just engaged for 10 sessions now have the option of 20 sessions and that blocks up the diaries of the psychologist so they can’t get new clients in. “The criticism has always been we were focussed on high-volume low-touch support. “Now we have the beauty of the 20 sessions but it is blocking up the availability of the psychologists.” The most recent figures showed an average of about 18 in 100,000 people died by suicide in the South West between 2015 and 2019 — well above the national average of about 13. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported one-in-five Australians experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress in the four weeks to June 12 because of COVID-19. The McGowan Government announced a $1.9 billion investment in health and mental health services including regional WA on August 9, but only $28.5 of it was allocated to improving regional mental health services. About 20 per cent of Australians experience a common mental health disorder within a 12-month period, with 10.7 per cent receiving Medicare-subsidised services in 2019-20.