Redefining Access: Disrupting the Fragmented Approach to Mental Health Care

This article was originally posted as part of HLTH’s Health Matters blog series highlighting key ideas from the ViVE 2023 conference in March 2023.

We know the statistics: More than half of the nearly 50 million adults living with mental health conditions in the U.S. do not receive treatment. Neither do more than 60 percent of children and adolescents with major depression.

This treatment disparity is often characterized collectively as “lack of access” to mental health services, but several distinct factors contribute to the problem. They include:

  • A shortage of behavioral health specialists. By 2024, analysts expect the U.S. to be at a deficit of as many as 31,000 psychiatrists.
  • Geographic disparity. The behavioral health specialists we do have are concentrated disproportionately across the country, leaving some high-risk populations without any access to services. 570 counties in the U.S. have no mental health care providers at all.
  • Financial barriers. Despite mental health parity laws enacted in 2008, insurance companies continue to reimburse mental health services less favorably than medical and surgical benefits. The Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health & Human Services jointly issued a report in 2022 that signaled increased enforcement of the Mental Health Parity laws.

Regardless of the reason, lack of access to mental health care results in mental health crisis: Patients with no other options seeking late-stage care in the ER. Suicide rates are on the rise again, particularly among communities of color. According to the latest CDC data, 1.2 million Americans attempted suicide in 2020, and 90% of them had a diagnosable mental illness that could have been treated before it escalated to a crisis.

In this environment, how can we provide access to care and make a meaningful difference in patient outcomes? We must think more creatively about care delivery, working together to provide unified programs across the entire state.

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