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Western's Counseling Center can be found on the fifth floor of Old Main and is open weekdays. // Photo by Ella Banken

By Jordan Kiel

Bellingham residents say there are barriers to mental health care that makes it difficult for them to get timely counseling. Some residents say they can’t find a counselor who accepts their insurance, others were waitlisted for months. 

Bellingham resident Morgan McGoldrick said she had to wait six months the first time she looked for a counselor in Bellingham. McGoldrick said in the amount of time it took her to find a counselor she ended up having a crisis.

To get the treatment she needed, McGoldrick drove to Anacortes every two weeks for counseling and to Mount Vernon every two weeks to see a psychiatrist. 

“If you can get into something right away [in Bellingham] you have to take it or you won’t be seen for months,” McGoldrick said. 

This contrasts McGoldrick’s time living in Spokane, Washington, where she was testing out different counselors within two weeks of beginning to seek counseling. 

“Not every counselor is the right counselor for you,” McGoldrick said. “It’s hard to choose here.”

Caley Johnson said she has a unique point of view on this issue as she has sought counseling for herself while working as a substance use disorder professional. She often provides referrals for mental health services she once had trouble accessing. 

Johnson said she doesn’t think there are enough counselors in Bellingham and referring her patients to the right mental health counselor is often difficult. 

“I’m not sure if this is something that can be easily fixed,” Johnson said in an email. “There’s a challenge in keeping the counselors we already have and supporting them, in addition to the need for more counselors in general.”

Johnson said she sees many different barriers for people searching for counseling including cost, finding counselors in their insurance network, scarcity of counselors and long wait times. 

“I feel like people are just trying to survive right now,” Johnson said. “People have to prioritize their needs and if they don’t have money leftover after paying for rent, bills, food, childcare, then it’s hard to justify an extra expense.”

Licensed mental health counselor Jeremy Houtsma said there is not one specific thing stopping people from getting into counseling. For some people it’s lack of insurance or quality insurance, for others it may be a lack of knowledge about or fear of counseling.

“Counseling is incredibly accessible at this point. I have clients that I see remotely via video chat, who are in Bellingham, while I sit in my office in Vancouver,” Houtsma wrote via a direct message through Reddit. 

McGoldrick said people shouldn’t discount virtual counseling services if they need to see a counselor in a timely manner. 

Rather than being less accessible, Houtsma thinks getting counseling in Bellingham is easier than in most places, especially rural areas. He said this is due to public transportation, the small proximity of the town and the generous attitude toward mental health. 

Houtsma recommends people use when looking for a counselor. People can view each counselor’s profile and filter the results to help find a better fit. He said sometimes one session isn’t enough time with a counselor to know if they are a good fit.

Johnson and McGoldrick also recommend 

“The right counselor is the one that you mesh well with, who you feel understood by and you feel like connects with you,” Houtsma said. 

Bellingham resident Rebekah Nelson sought counseling from King Health Associates by going to their website and filling out a new patient questionnaire. Nelson said this was the only way to get in touch with them. Nelson got a response two to three days later stating the clinic was not equipped to provide the support she needs. She said the response felt cold and generic. 

“It made me feel that I was so messed up they didn't have faculty trained for such extreme needs,” Nelson said. “Logically I know that's not true, but feelings aren't logical.”

Nelson felt that King Health Associates assumed she was in a crisis instead of explaining they didn’t have a counselor who accepted her insurance. When she reached out to them, she was told that they use artificial intelligence software to match prospective clients with counselors and that none of their counselors are in the network with Nelson’s insurance.  

Houtsma said a large barrier to mental health care is the gap between state and private insurance. State insurance is always covered by community mental health agencies while private insurance only covers certain professionals.

Johnson said seeing a counselor in person took her a month of searching and another one to two months of waiting. Of the counselors Johnson called, some never called her back, some didn’t accept her insurance and others weren’t taking new clients.

Western second-year Maisie Gould said she has not been able to find an affordable counselor in Bellingham. For Gould, looking online made it easier because she was able to filter out counselors who didn’t accept her insurance. 

“What stopped me was the price,” Gould said. 

Houtsma said as a provider who has worked mainly with adolescents and college-age people, college students do not make it more difficult for other Bellingham residents to receive counseling services. He said for the most part he rarely saw students in counseling spaces. 

Johnson said she doesn't think college students are adding to the issues of long wait times and lack of counselors. She said systematic issues in the counseling and social work field make it difficult to retain employees.

“I think we aren’t addressing societal issues that are creating this big need for counseling – like generational trauma, trauma in general, inability to survive on current wages,” Johnson said in an email. “But that’s a bigger issue and more subjective.”

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