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Untreated Minds: 3 Barriers to Mental Health Services That Impact Millions

One in five Americans experience a mental illness, with 60 million people affected in a given year. Treatments such as psychotherapy, medication, and care management have shown to improve the health status and functioning of people with mental illness, yet only 43% of people suffering from a mental illness receive any treatment.

Most of us don’t hesitate to seek medical attention when we are suffering from a physical illness. Why is it different for mental health?

Here are 3 major barriers to treatment that are unique to mental health:

1. Stigma around mental health:

Mental illnesses affect people of all ages, cultures, and socioeconomic status. Yet mental health is shrouded in stigma in a way that physical health is not. People suffering from mental illnesses are often seen as unpredictable, different, weak, “crazy,” or even dangerous. This negative stereotype has persisted through time and prevents many people dealing with a mental health condition from seeking the treatment they need. According to a World Psychiatry paper, people who experience mental health conditions often begin to believe the deep-rooted, false stereotypes associated with their condition. This decreases their self-esteem and the likelihood that they will seek treatment, and can actually worsen their health.

2. Poor understanding of mental illnesses:

While many don’t seek help because of social stigmas surrounding mental health, others don’t understand or accept that they are experiencing a treatable health condition to begin with. People often dismiss their depression as “feeling down and lazy” and anxiety as simply “being over-worried”. Yet these feelings may actually be cases of clinical conditions. In a study on untreated mental illnesses, researchers investigated why people they didn’t seek treatment for their mental illness. The results? The vast majority of study participants either didn’t believe they had a problem requiring treatment, thought they could handle the problem themselves, or thought their problem would get better on its own. There is a lack of understanding of symptoms caused by mental health conditions and the benefits that could be provided through treatment.

3. Difficulty accessing services:

In 2008, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act ensured that health plans had to provide the same coverage for mental health as they do for medical and surgical benefits. While this has expanded coverage for many people seeking mental health services, access to mental health providers remains a problem. Many people seeking treatment struggle to find a provider that is relatively close and accepting new patients. It is estimated that over 60% of people seeking treatment are forced to wait three months or longer for an appointment. Even when they do receive treatment, transportation is often cited as an issue as the mental health provider may be miles away.

As more healthcare organizations continue to expand services for mental health, we must foster a culture of awareness and education to de-stigmatize conditions that affect millions in our society. For the vast majority of mental illnesses, there are a range of effective treatments that can reduce symptoms and allow you live a happier, fuller life. Treatment and recovery is possible. We must now focus our efforts on making it accessible to those who need it.