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Patient Demand for Mental Healthcare Surges, Access Barriers Persist

As the demand for mental healthcare grows, it is essential that the healthcare industry reduce stigma, enhance affordability, and improve patient education surrounding mental health, athenahealth explained.

There is a big spike in patient demand for mental healthcare services, as seen in the rising number of mental health visits, yet patients still indicated that significant access barriers exist, research from athenahealth showed.

The pandemic has furthered the mental health crisis, the report noted. The number of US adults expressing symptoms of major depressive disorder increased from 24 percent in August 2020 to 30 percent in December 2021, per CDC figures.

In turn, more patients sought out mental healthcare during the first six months of the pandemic than they did pre-COVID.

Americans born between 2013 and present experienced the greatest increase in mental health visits per patient (43 percent) in the first year of the pandemic.

In just one year, the number of mental health visits attributed to new patients increased by 27 percent in July 2020, compared to July 2019.

Even still, the athenahealth-commissioned survey of 1,000 US patients found that 42 percent of adults that wanted to see a mental health professional did not do so.

The survey results indicated age and gender yielded the greatest disparities in the utilization of mental healthcare services.

During the pandemic, men were more likely to see a mental health professional than women. Men were also more likely to visit a mental healthcare professional for the first during this same period. However, 19 percent of women compared to 16 percent of men re-engaged in past mental health treatment.

Out of all age groups, millennials, defined as Americans born between 1981 and 1996, were the most likely to not seek mental health services despite wanting to, with 56 percent reporting as much. Several barriers held millennials back from seeking care, such as cost, lack of time, and lack of knowledge

In addition, nearly a quarter of survey respondents felt judgment from family members when talking about mental health. However, issues with social stigma varied among age brackets with generation Z and millennials facing it at a greater rate than others.

“While mental health has historically held its own stigma, the challenges of the past several years have helped break down some of the barriers and allowed people to talk more openly about their mental wellbeing and seek out treatment,” Jessica Sweeney-Platt, vice president of research and editorial strategy at athenahealth said in the press release.

“Yet people are still struggling to get the care they want and need. Social isolation and the pandemic’s disruption to daily life has had a profound effect on people of all ages,” Sweeney-Platt continued. “Moving forward, it is essential that as an industry we continue to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, provide education, and make mental healthcare affordable and accessible.”

Survey respondents stated that having more time to focus on themselves, as well as more education, acceptance, and support could improve their ability to care for their mental health. Baby Boomers, defined as Americans born between 1946 and 1964, were the least likely to have enough time to care for their mental health, with 33 percent of them reporting such.

“Generation X and even some Baby Boomer caregivers fall into what is known as the ‘sandwich generation,’” said Sweeney-Platt.

“These Americans are caring for themselves, their children, and aging relatives - which might explain why these two demographic groups said that having more time to themselves would improve their ability to care for their mental health,” Sweeney-Plat continued. “The pandemic has intensified these responsibilities and therefore, it is more important than ever for caregivers to prioritize their wellbeing while supporting others.”

In addition to time, adults within this age group have more cost-related mental healthcare access challenges.

Most adults over 65 have some mental health coverage through their enrollment in Medicare, but experts are unsure if that is enough to ensure older Americans’ mental health needs are being met.

“Despite the financial protections Medicare offers, its coverage leaves many US older adults exposed to high healthcare costs,” the researchers reported. “This is particularly true for beneficiaries with serious mental health needs who are likely to spend more on health services. High out-of-pocket health costs can lead beneficiaries to postpone care or forgo it entirely, which can produce poorer health outcomes and raise overall healthcare spending.”

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