The Downside of Mental Health Awareness

Susan Weinstein

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 for the depression and
bipolar disorder test.

What do you think?

  • What has to happen to improve mental health care?
  • In what ways have you been affected by the social stigma of mental health conditions?

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Author Bio

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.

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