There have been twice as many appointments made with psychologists since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, a fact that reflects increasing worry about how the pandemic has affected people’s mental health.
Sciensano, the Belgian Institute for Public Health, expressed concerns about the worsening social and mental well-being of the population back in December, but new reporting from De Standaard indicates that even the record number of psychologist appointments is just the tip of the iceberg, since figures only reflect primary psychological care.
The National Institute for Health and Disability Insurance registered 6,318 first-line psychological sessions in February 2020. That number was 12,33 in December.
A session is first-line when the appointment was the first method that a doctor chose to treat a particular illness or condition, like depression or anxiety, both of which are estimated to be affecting 1 in 3 adults today as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.
A person can only have a first-line session if they received a referral from their doctor, in which case only the first eight sessions are eligible for reimbursement. But a psychologist can also be consulted outside the framework if a person is willing to forgo the reimbursement and fixed pricing, and the people who do so are not reflected in the figures.
The system was developed by former Minister of Health Maggie De Block in 2019, to much criticism from psychologists who consider the doctor referral a barrier, and the fee of €45 per session to be too low. The current Minister of Health, Frank Vandenbroucke, is considering extra psychological support for young people and the elderly.
Nevertheless, the amount of those sessions with a psychologist has doubled since the start of the pandemic.
“The trend is clear: people are increasingly consulting psychologists,” Koen Lowet, managing director of the Flemish Association of Clinical Psychologists, told De Standaard.
Vandenbroucke released €112 million intended for primary psychologists when he took office, but that money hasn’t yet reached its destinations. First, a new system must be created to allow people to pay for more sessions and remove barriers for those who urgently need mental health services.
But this is expected to take time, with Lowet estimating they need at least another month to finalize the system.
In the meantime, Vandenbroucke is releasing funding for mobile crisis teams to visit people with acute psychological needs at home. The rest of the related measures are expected to become clear this week.