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Health / Health Care

The Wellness Gap

by Melody Bryn | August 5 2020

 A New Study Reveals A Disparity Between Mental Health Attitudes and Access Across States

In national conversations surrounding mental health, two conversations tend to dominate: healthcare access and population attitudes towards healthcare. While, across the country, enormous progress has been made in increasing access to mental health providers while simultaneously deconstructing limiting stigmas around mental health, Americans struggling with mental health still suffer from internalized attitudes and external barriers to support. 

Given that so many Americans (nearly 47 million according to the National Institute of Mental Health) live with mental illness, gaps in access and attitudes towards mental healthcare could have population-wide implications.  Luckily, a new study from the United Way of the National Capital Area sheds light on these gaps in mental health support, providing some insights into how mental illness may further impact certain regions. 

According to the study, mental healthcare access is definitely an area of concern. Using county health rankings across the country, the United Way found that, at the nation’s best, top-ranked states including Massachusetts and Maine had well over 150 residents per single mental health provider. This was far worse in other states like Alabama, where numbers peaked as high as 990 residents per provider. Given that, according to the United Health Foundation, these providers support clients with all sorts of health concerns from substance abuse to marriage counseling, it’s clear that American mental health providers have their work cut out for them. 

However, for Americans struggling with mental illness, access to a mental health provider may not be enough to ensure they receive the support they need. As shown by the United Way study, individuals’ own attitudes towards mental health may be a barrier to mental health support. In every state, a significant amount of survey respondents reported that they felt some level of discomfort accessing mental healthcare. 

For instance, in some states like Vermont, where access to a mental health provider was relatively high, at around 220 residents per one provider, still over 32% of the population reported being uncomfortable in accessing mental healthcare. According to the National Alliance on Mental Healthcare, factors like stigma, lack of knowledge, inability to recognize symptoms of mental illness and inability to seek mental healthcare resources may contribute to this nationwide discomfort. 

As gaps like these still persist in many states, it’s clear that something must be done in both increasing mental healthcare access and reducing discomfort around seeking mental healthcare in order to get more Americans the healthcare support they need. 

One solution that has been working to address both of these concerns, mental telehealth, has risen dramatically across the country, especially as social distancing restrictions have kept both residents and mental healthcare providers at home, as pointed out in a recent To the Point article

However, even mental telehealth, which one might understand to be less intimate, therefore, less prone to awkward discomfort, falls short of closing the gaps in discomfort among Americans. According to the United Way data, many states’ residents report being even more uncomfortable with mental telehealth support. In some cases, nearly 40% of residents expressed at least some level of discomfort. Whether it be through the inevitable change of social norms surrounding technology and mental health, or through other public health marketing, it’s clear that something must change in regards to attitudes towards mental telehealth if it is to be an effective tool among those struggling with mental illness. 

Overall, it’s unclear what will close the gap, but given the data we have surrounding the gap between healthcare access and attitudes, one thing is evident: mental healthcare support in America is fully meeting the needs of Americans.

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