by Molly McMillen
Among the seemingly endless list of negative impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust upon our society is an intense decline in mental health for many individuals. More than half of Americans surveyed in a recent study say that their mental health has worsened as a result of the pandemic. Furthermore, the current strain on our health care system due to the rapidly growing number of virus cases makes seeking treatment more difficult. These results are hardly surprising considering the depression, anxiety, and other mental health risks associated with job loss, social isolation, and illness or loss of loved ones. What may be surprising however, is the vast number of people who, regardless of the presence of the global pandemic, struggle with mental health issues and are unable to afford or otherwise access the resources that they desperately need.
Despite the fact that mental health conditions will affect nearly half of Americans at some point throughout their lives, the subject of mental health is still a highly stigmatized and largely overlooked issue. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans struggle with mental health issues in any given year, with nearly 1 in 20 diagnosed with serious mental illness. Out of the millions of Americans with diagnosed mental illnesses, 57% of them are receiving no treatment for these problems, with a quarter of them being unable to access treatment due to inadequate insurance coverage, absence of required therapy and treatment types or physicians, and general inability to pay for treatment.
Access to high-quality affordable health care already presents an enormous obstacle to underinsured and uninsured individuals seeking care for physical health problems; however, it is even more difficult for those seeking care for mental health issues. One in 10 Americans who have any form of mental illness is uninsured. This further exacerbates the already high cost of mental health care, which 42% of Americans say is the most substantial barrier for seeking treatment due to being uninsured or underinsured.
Even individuals who have health insurance coverage still reported difficulties finding access to mental health resources. One-third of privately insured Americans who participated in a 2017 survey reported challenges in finding any kind of therapist, psychiatrist or physician able to prescribe mental health medications, which was higher than the number of individuals who struggled to find primary care and other physical health physicians. Furthermore, this same study showed that, for those insured with Medicaid, out-of-pocket costs were reported as a barrier for one quarter of Americans seeking physicians capable of prescribing mental health medications, and one-third of Americans seeking any kind of therapist. If the alarming lack of access to physical and mental health care services was not already pronounced enough, 1 in 4 Americans stated that they had to choose to treat either a physical or mental health issue, but not both, due to their insurance.
It is painfully obvious that the health system in the United States contains a staggering number of barriers to receiving adequate mental health care, and thus millions of Americans are constantly denied their fundamental human right to happiness. Emotional well-being is a crucial component to physical well-being and should thus be regarded as such. Therefore, it is necessary that we improve access to not only high-quality, affordable physical care, but high-quality, affordable mental care as well. Most would agree that every individual has the right to be healthy and happy, so why are the means by which we can acquire those things not available to every individual as well?
Molly McMillen is a senior undergraduate pre-medical student at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO with an intense passion for writing, health care, and advocating for better access to quality care. She is currently a certified nursing assistant and hopes to go into anesthesiology after finishing her undergraduate and graduate degrees.