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The Widening Mental Health Gap

Most Americans are slowly moving past the pandemic, but the mental strain of the last year may linger until they can access treatment. Too bad that’s easier said than done.

Difficulty Accessing Mental Health Care

A report released in April found that, while mental health issues increased during the pandemic, access to mental health care diminished. 

Organizations that provide mental health care, faced with a shortage of personal protective equipment and strained staff, were unable to maintain their service levels. According to a 2021 survey from the National Council for Mental Wellbeing:

  • 45% closed some programs
  • 27% laid off employees and 
  • 35% decreased hours for remaining staff. 

The same survey found that nearly 68% of clinics serving low-income people with mental health and substance abuse issues had to cancel, reschedule or turn away patients.

Emergency department data illustrate the skyrocketing need. From mid-March through mid-October 2020, visits for drug overdoses and suicide attempts were 36% and 26% higher, respectively, as compared to the same time period in 2019.

The statistics are unsettling but perhaps not surprising. Nearly 40% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression as recently as February. And two-thirds of primary care providers are having trouble finding mental health specialists for their patients. In some parts of the country, the ratio of mental health professionals to residents is less than 1-to-30,000

Finding Solutions

New resources and creative policies can help address the more than 50 million American adults who live with some form of mental illness. Potential approaches include: 

  • Addressing low reimbursement rates for mental health care providers.
  • Working to recruit more students into psychiatry, an especially important undertaking because more than 60% of practicing psychiatrists today are over the age of 55.  
  • Continuing to make telehealth accessible and affordable after the public health emergency ends.

Untreated mental illness keeps people from working, caring for their families and contributing to their communities. By working together, policymakers, insurers, educators and health care institutions can chip away at the problems that keep people from accessing the mental health care they so desperately need.

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