Susan Weinstein, J.D.
Editor-in-Chief, Care for Your Mind
Taraji P. Henson recently joined the ranks of celebrities openly discussing their experiences of living with mental health conditions. In starting her own nonprofit organization, the star of the movie “Hidden Figures” and the television show “Empire” aims to break down the stigma around mental health among African Americans and to encourage people to seek help without shame. Ms. Henson has created an opportunity to reach millions of people who might not otherwise receive these messages.
Over the past few months, mental health has increasingly been on people’s minds. The suicide deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing increased suicide rates in almost every state in the country, new laws in New York and Virginia mandating mental health education in public schools, people like Ms. Henson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson coming forward to discuss their depression—all have kept the conversation about mental health awareness going. Taken together, these disparate factors underscore the need for greater understanding of mental health conditions and willingness to seek help.
Having mental health awareness means more people will be able to recognize signs of mental illness, seek care for themselves, and support others. So here comes the bad news. We’re not able to help all of those people address their mental health concerns. Why? Because there are not enough providers, mental health care is expensive, and treatment doesn’t always mean someone is going to getting well.
A young person with more than a mild mental health condition usually needs to see a child and adolescent psychiatrist. In the U.S., there are just about 8,300 child and adolescent psychiatrists to provide services for the roughly 15 million youths who need them. Mathematically, that’s one psychiatrist for every 1,800 kids. In Greater Boston where my organization is headquartered, we have a higher number of child and adolescent psychiatrists than most cities. Here, the wait time for a new patient appointment with one of these specialists is four to six weeks. For kids in Wisconsin, Mississippi, or Nevada, the wait time could be twice as long.
To solve the workforce issue, we need to train more mental health professionals and peer specialists. We need to achieve more equitable distribution of providers across the country. We need to recruit providers from different racial and ethnic backgrounds to improve access to culturally competent care. And we need to use technology to reach the people who cannot access services in person.
Another big issue is cost. People who can’t afford insurance might get care at a community clinic or emergency department, but that’s not sustainable for them or the healthcare system. While many psychiatrists and therapists don’t even accept insurance, those who do often leave their patients with staggering out-of-pocket costs for co-pays and deductibles.
Finally, there are the flaws of treatment: quality, efficacy, and outcomes. People who start medical treatment may discontinue because of negative side effects. Talk therapies vary widely in availability and quality. Mental health research is woefully underfunded, both in relation to other diseases and to the prevalence of mental health conditions. There is still much we don’t know about how to effectively treat mental health conditions and there are not a great many treatment options. Even with their best efforts, people sometimes don’t stay well due to the chronic nature of conditions like depression.
Nonetheless, mental health awareness is a worthwhile endeavor. People living with mental health conditions can and do get well. I believe that there are better treatments to come and that more professionals will find their calling in the mental health field. I also believe that early education and sharing our experiences with mental health issues will break down the stigma that inhibits people from seeking help.
What can you do? Lend a helping hand to that family member who is struggling to find a therapist. When you vote in November, consider each politician’s stance on expanding mental healthcare services. And, above all, join Taraji P. Henson and the millions of people affected by mental health conditions to help create a world in which there is no shame associated with having depression or bipolar disorder.
Editor’s Note: Mental Health Awareness Week and National Depression Screening Day, which occurred last week, inspired this post. Remember that free anonymous and confidential screenings are always available online. Visit www.familyaware.org/moodtest for the depression and bipolar disorder test.
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Susan Weinstein, Esq., is Co-Executive Director of Families for Depression Awareness, a national suicide prevention organization helping families recognize and cope with depression and bipolar disorder, and Editor-in-Chief of Care for Your Mind.