The Mental Health Crisis in the U.S.
The U.S. is experiencing a national mental health crisis that emerged even before COVID-19. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in five American adults, or about 52 million people, struggles with mental illness, and less than half receive treatment. The statistics are consistent in Georgia with more than 2 million of the state’s 10.7 million residents living with mental illness.
COVID has only exacerbated the situation with social isolation, new parental challenges, job loss and other economic effects, and fear of contracting the virus all contributing to heightened levels of stress and anxiety. According to a 2021 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, approximately four in 10 adults nationwide reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic—a four-fold increase from pre-pandemic levels.
Our youth is struggling too. A recent report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that since the pandemic started, mental health-related visits to hospital emergency rooms rose 24% for children ages 5-11, and 31% for children ages 12-17 compared with data from 2019.
More recently, as we look to return to normalcy, with employees coming back to the workplace in some capacity, the American Psychological Association reported the highest levels of stress in the U.S. since April 2020. Half of adults reported being uneasy about returning to in-person interactions.
Healthy Mind, Healthy Body
Our mental health plays a huge role in our general well-being. Being in a healthy mental state can help prevent serious disease while poor mental health is a risk factor for chronic conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease and arthritis.
Additionally, higher levels of anxiety and stress are shown to lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as increased substance use and lower levels of physical activity. For example, people living with mental health conditions are more likely to smoke. And among smokers, they are more likely to smoke a greater number of cigarettes.
People struggling with poor mental health experience sleeping problems at a much higher rate than the general population, which can make their existing mental health conditions worse. They also struggle with seeking care when they need it, taking their medication as prescribed and getting exercise, which contributes to poorer control of chronic conditions.
The Cost of Poor Mental Health
It’s no surprise that poor mental health has costs for health plans and employers. Research shows that employers see 8-11 percent lost work productivity for employees with symptoms of major depression.
Research also shows that taking steps to improve mental health can reduce net cost of care, especially among individuals suffering from multiple chronic illnesses or complex conditions. Some studies indicate it can generate cost savings as high as 20 percent.
Health care payors and providers can no longer focus solely on physical health. Clearly, a holistic strategy that takes a person’s mental health into account is a critical aspect in maintaining whole person health.
Improving Access to Mental Health Services
Many of the 45 percent of American adults struggling with mental health conditions who are not receiving treatment is not necessarily due to their lack of trying. Many are simply unable to get an appointment due the severe shortage of mental health professionals in the U.S. In all, 121 million Americans live in communities with a shortage of mental health professionalsand access varies significantly across states, and Georgia is no exception. A report from the Georgia Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Committee found that all but nine of Georgia’s 159 counties have shortages in parts of their mental health workforces.
Telehealth is helping to close some of the gaps in mental health care, and people are embracing it. In a recent consumer study from MDLIVE, an Evernorth company, 55 percent of respondents said they were open to using telehealth for behavioral health services, citing key benefits as the ability to get care from the comfort of wherever they are and feeling as though they have a safe space to talk with someone about sensitive issues. And legislators in Georgia clearly see the value of telehealth for improving access to care. This year, the Georgia General Assembly unanimously passed legislation aimed at increasing the delivery of care via telehealth that prohibits, among other things, separate insurance deductibles for telehealth care.
Even in the recent past, the stigma associated with mental health conditions led many people to suffer in silence. But, that stigma has shown signs of lessening, likely hastened along by the heightened levels of stress and anxiety so many of us experienced during the pandemic. As a society, we are more aware of these issues, the value of therapy and the role medications play in treating these conditions. According to findings from the Evernorth 2020 Drug Trend Report, use of antidepressant medications increased by 7.9 percent in 2020 compared with the previous year, and 93 percent of consumers agree that their benefits should include mental health services.