Patient Access to Mental Healthcare Lower Among Women than Men

Insurance coverage, provider availability, and cost bar patient access to mental healthcare for women, KFF numbers show.

Patient access to mental healthcare is poorer among women, with high costs and limited provider availability stymying the process, according to new figures from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Mental healthcare access issues are playing out in gender-based health disparities, with a smaller proportion of the women who need mental healthcare attempting to access it compared to men.

The healthcare industry is finding itself at a crossroads in terms of mental healthcare. Nearly three years into a pandemic that disrupted work and daily life for virtually everyone, the US healthcare system needs to come to grips with skyrocketing mental health needs.

“Women experience several mental health conditions more commonly than men, and some also experience mental health disorders that are unique to women, such as perinatal depression and premenstrual dysphoric disorders that may occur when hormone levels change,” the KFF researchers said, adding their own citations. “Data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that across all age groups, women were almost twice as likely to have depression and anxiety than men.”

But despite mental health needs being more common in women, this latest KFF research showed that a smaller proportion of women who needed mental healthcare tried to access it compared to men.

Half of the women ages 18 to 64 included in the KFF analysis said they thought they needed mental health treatment, compared to just 35 percent of their male peers who said the same. But although women saw an outsized need for mental healthcare, they were just about as likely as men to seek it—60 percent versus 56 percent, respectively.

Of the 50 percent of women seeking mental healthcare, around half could get an appointment. Most of those women (47 percent) got an appointment within a month, while a quarter had to wait between one and two months and 13 percent had to wait two months.

These trends are troublesome, the researchers indicated, because half of women are left with unmet mental healthcare needs. Four in 10 women said they did not try to get mental healthcare access, while 10 percent tried but could not obtain an appointment.

Provider availability (33 percent) and cost of care (33 percent) were the most common reasons women could not get a medical appointment. Women reported that many providers were not covered under their health insurance plan. Cost was a barrier for 60 percent of those without insurance coverage.

Even still, those with insurance coverage faced cost issues. Around 30 percent said the cost of mental healthcare deterred them from access, and even among those who did end up accessing mental healthcare, having insurance coverage was not a panacea. Two in 10 women said their provider did not accept their insurance; 3 percent of these women paid their entire bill out of pocket.

Around half said their insurance company paid for part of their visits, and they paid the rest out of pocket, while 38 percent said their insurer paid the bill in full.

But it’s not just the cost that’s keeping women from mental healthcare access, the researchers found.

Another 8 percent said appointment wait times were unreasonable, 6 percent said they couldn’t find a provider nearby, and 6 percent said they were too busy or could not get time off from work. Notably, 4 percent said they worked through their problems on their own, and another 4 percent said the stigma around mental healthcare access dissuaded them.

Telehealth is proving effective in improving mental healthcare access, the data showed, although it doesn’t solve every problem. Of the 60 percent of adult women who said they used telehealth in the past two years, 17 percent said it was for a mental health visit. Mental health was the third-most common reason for using telehealth, the researchers remarked.

Telehealth was more common among rural dwellers, young women, and those with Medicaid coverage. Telehealth is only helpful if an individual’s insurance covers a virtual mental health visit. Still, as the US navigates new telehealth policies amid the post-pandemic landscape, it does show promise.

Notably, telehealth is an adequate stand-in for in-person mental healthcare when patients can access it. Seven in 10 women who had accessed both in-person and telehealth mental healthcare said quality was about equal.

“The findings from the 2022 KFF WHS suggest that future policies affecting telehealth, provider availability, health insurance coverage, and affordability will play a significant role in addressing the demand for mental health care,” the researchers concluded.

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