Mental health care is a critical aspect of overall healthcare. Mental health care encompasses how individuals think, feel, and behave. Mental illness can affect anyone, and the effects of untreated mental illness extend far beyond the individual. The societal impact of inadequate mental health care is significant.
Each year, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) declares May as Mental Health Awareness Month. According to NAMI, “It’s important to measure how common mental illness is, so we can understand its physical, social, and financial impact – and so we can show that no one is alone.” According to NAMI’s fast facts on mental illness, one in five adults and one in six youths aged six through 17 in the United States experience mental illness annually. One in 20 adults experiences serious mental illness every year. NAMI provides these statistics, noting that “These numbers are also powerful tools for raising public awareness, stigma-busting, and advocating for better health care.” Keep reading to learn more about mental health, barriers to treatment, and how Mental Health Awareness Month can make a difference.
Mental Illness in America in 2023
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines mental health as anything that “includes a person’s psychological, emotional, and social well-being and affects how we feel, think, and act.” Mental Health America conducts an annual study that compiles data regarding how mental health affects the country. Like all reports, there is a delay between data collection and publishing of the results. Mental Health America notes that this year’s study uses data collected in 2020, which includes data accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the pandemic undoubtedly affected physical and mental health, the study results are consistent with mental health studies for the last several years. Statistically, reports of mental health conditions are rising as access to care becomes more limited and difficult. Mental Health America’s 2023 found that:
- 21% of adults in the United States live with at least one mental illness
- Of these adults, 55% with a mental illness have not received any treatment
- 4.8% of adults reported serious suicidal thoughts (roughly 12.1 million adults)
Increased Substance Abuse Disorders
The provider shortage plus barriers with insurance providers have made getting treatment difficult. When adults cannot receive treatment for mental illness, they look for alternative coping mechanisms. Increasingly, adults are turning to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms in place of mental health treatment.
Mental Health America’s 2023 study found that nearly 11% of adults reported abusing alcohol, and nearly 7% reported abusing illegal drugs. Untreated substance abuse disorders have contributed to an increase in overdose risk factors. In 2020, more than 93,000 overdose deaths occurred in the United States.
With mental health concerns on the rise, access to care is critical. However, access to care is one of the primary reasons people with mental health care do not seek help. The provider shortage plus barriers with insurance providers have made getting treatment difficult.
Barriers to Treatment
A key factor in reducing the disease burden of mental illness is increasing accessibility to treatment. When people have access to the care they need, they can take a proactive approach to managing their mental health, resulting in a positive impact at both the individual and community levels.
According to a public policy report from NAMI, almost half of the 60 million Americans with mental health conditions do not receive treatment. Reasons for this vary, but there are significant barriers that prevent people from accessing mental health care, including:
- Insurance Barriers: It is often more difficult to find a mental health care provider than other types of health care professionals, especially with the current provider shortage. When coupled with the limitations of finding a provider who is considered in-network on an insurance plan, access to mental health care is difficult at best.
- Provider Shortage: Even before COVID-19 there was a shortage of psychiatrists. Over 150 Americans live in federally designated mental health professional shortage areas already, and the numbers don’t show signs of immediate improvement. According to an article posted by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the country will be short between 14,280 and 31,109 psychiatrists.
- Financial Barriers: With many adults unable to find providers that take their insurance, the cost of treatment is all out-of-pocket. The rising cost of living and stagnant wages have contributed to making it increasingly difficult for many to afford out-of-pocket treatment for mental illness.
The Impact of Mental Health Awareness Month
According to the NAMI, the number of people seeking help for mental health issues has significantly increased in recent years. In 2019, NAMI reported that more than 44 million adults in the United States had a mental illness, and only about half of those received treatment. However, in 2021, NAMI reported that the number of people seeking help for mental health issues had increased to over 50 million adults. That means that while cases of mental illness continue to rise, so does the number of people receiving treatment. A number of factors contribute to the rise in adults seeking treatment including increased awareness of mental health due to the information provided during National Mental Health Month.
Increasing awareness is a key factor in people seeking treatment for mental illness, but so is reducing the stigma associated with mental illness. When people feel ashamed or embarrassed about their mental illness, they are less likely to reach out for help and the treatment they need. Initiatives like National Mental Health Month help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. Any reduction in barriers to treatment, like access to resources, can help those living with mental illness find treatment.
In addition to increasing awareness and reducing societal stigma, other factors contribute to people seeking treatment for mental illness. One important factor is parity laws. Parity laws require health insurance to cover mental health services to the same extent that physical health care services are covered. Currently, there are still significant disparities in the way that mental health services are covered. For example, mental health services are still more likely to be charged out-of-network, and in-network provider reimbursement rates are lower for mental health visits than for primary care visits.
While there is still much work to be done, awareness campaigns like NAMI’s National Mental Health Month have a positive impact on mental health care.