Healthcare is often largely preventative. It’s so much easier to help a person make sensible choices about food and exercise than it is to perform a triple bypass. It’s simpler to stop smoking than it is to start chemotherapy, and well, You get it.
Unfortunately, an equivalent logic is rarely applied to mental health considerations. Patients are often left without recommendations for their mental and emotional health until they’ve experienced an issue. Should the American healthcare system spend more time and resources on mental health and wellness?
Many experts think that the answer to that question is yes.
It’s important to keep in mind that more than just the individual’s health is at stake when it comes to preventative care. Hospitals are an ecosystem in their own right. To support an entire community – sometimes multiple communities – they don’t actually have the resources to take care of everyone at once.
That lesson was learned thoroughly during Covid, when hospitals all over the country ran out of beds and had to put people in hallways and waiting rooms.
When basic mental and emotional health needs are ignored for too long, it can result in more significant incidents that put a greater strain on the hospital’s resources later on.
This cost reverberates throughout the community. The victim may then lose their job, experience encounters with the social justice system, and have other bad outcomes that have a latent social cost.
It’s bad for the community. It’s worse for the person suffering from mental health issues. And of course, the longer their needs go unmet, the harder it ultimately is to recover.
Preventative mental health care is an expense, but that doesn’t mean it is more expensive than the alternative. Allowing people to slip through the cracks does not eliminate the need to deal with their problems. At most, it postpones it.
Barriers to mental health care access
It’s not a lack of willingness or even awareness that prevents broader access to mental health care. There are several barriers that are difficult to overcome, even when every effort is made.
- Qualified carers. Imagine you live in Mattoon, Illinois. There is precisely one hospital within an hour’s drive of your home. It’s not bad, but when people in your town require a specialist, they usually make the two-hour drive over to St. Louis for treatment. Now, let’s say you are experiencing depression and anxiety. You need care, but there is none nearby.
- Access. Do you make a two-hour drive each week? Some people might, but most probably won’t. Having limited access to mental health professionals can stop even willing patients dead in their tracks. Rural areas are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to accessing high-quality care. However, even city dwellers may have a hard time accessing specialised services.
- Cost. You’re still in Mattoon, Illinois. Good news: a qualified therapist has moved into town. Bad news? They’re outside of your insurance network. Out-of-pocket costs are $150 per session. You don’t have it. Healthcare in the US is notoriously expensive, and mental health treatment is usually a long-term expense. Some people can’t commit to spending thousands of dollars over the course of their lifetime on treatment.
- Social stigma. Seeking mental health care can also impact a person’s standing in the community. Some employers may be wary of hiring someone with mental health difficulties. Some community members may be wary, gossipy, or simply cruel about it. Social stigma has been a significant barrier to care for many decades. Fortunately, all of these issues have improved in recent years. Telehealth services make it easier than ever to connect with qualified professionals, regardless of where you are stationed. They can also be more affordable, making it easier to cover the out-of-pocket costs. Social stigma is, of course, trickier. While prejudice still exists, however, many people are much more open to the idea of mental health treatment.
Policy reforms and investment in mental healthcare
It will take more than just a change in public perception to meaningfully impact the state of mental healthcare in the United States. It will take substantial policy reform to make care equitable and accessible, regardless of your location or economic status.
Legislative policy has skewed in the direction of preventative care and accessibility in recent years. And while the broader spectrum of American healthcare policymaking is still deeply entangled in partisan bickering, mental health and wellness have been topics both sides of the ally seem willing to agree upon.
That said, American politics are slow-moving. If you would like to be part of the change, contact local mental health advocacy groups to learn more about volunteer opportunities.
It goes for everyone
Mental health care is not only for people with mental health conditions. Virtually everyone experiences stress and anxiety at certain points in their life. Having the skill to address these feelings as they arrive can go a long way towards ensuring that the situation doesn’t snowball into a more serious condition.
This goes for healthcare workers as well as the people that they treat. Many companies and even hospitals recognise this fact and are taking strides towards building quality of life considerations into their company culture.
If you find that work is a significant source of stress in your life, you may consider discussing the matter with HR. You may be surprised by the resources that they can connect you with.
No matter what your situation, self-advocacy will be required to ensure you are getting what is available to you. In healthcare, as in so many things, you never get what you don’t ask for. Take a regular inventory of how you are feeling. When something is wrong, take it seriously and look for help. You owe it to yourself.
Ellen Diamond, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.