Healthcare for mental illness is on the decline in US, say experts

More Americans than ever before are suffering from serious psychological distress (SPD), according to researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center.

Furthermore, the ability of the US to meet the growing demand for mental health services is quickly deteriorating, they say.

As reported in Psychiatric Services, lead author Judith Weissman and team analysed federal health information from the National Health Interview Survey, which covered more than 35,000 households and involved more than 200,000 US residents (aged between 18 and 64 years), across all states, ethnicities and socioeconomic groups.

The study found that 3.4% (more than 8.3 million) of Americans suffer from SPD, compared with estimates of 3% or less reported by previous studies.

On comparing surveys conducted over nine years (between 2006 and 2014), the team also showed a deterioration in access to healthcare services for people with SPD, when compared with people who did not report SPD.

"Although our analysis does not give concrete reasons why mental health services are diminishing, it could be from shortages in professional help, increased costs of care not covered by insurance, the great recession, and other reasons worthy of further investigation," says Weissman.

The study showed that in 2014, almost one in 10 distressed Americans (9.5%) did not have health insurance that would cover access to a counselor or psychologist, compared with 9% in 2006. Insufficient mental health coverage meant 10.5% of individuals experienced delays in getting help, compared with 9.5% in 2006 and 9.9% were unable to afford psychiatric drugs, compared with 8.7% in 2006.

"Based on our data, we estimate that millions of Americans have a level of emotional functioning that leads to lower quality of life and life expectancy," says Weissman. She also thinks the study may explain the increased suicide rate in the US, which is up to 43,000 cases per year.

Interestingly, publication of the findings coincides with coverage of Prince William’s efforts to discuss mental health in the UK. Along with his brother Prince Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William is promoting the London Marathon’s charity of the year – the Heads Together #oktosay campaign, which encourages people to talk about their mental health challenges.

Prince William warned against the dangers of keeping a “stiff upper lip” in an interview with the charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm), an organization dedicated to preventing male suicide. He described how he was exposed to suicide through his work as an air ambulance pilot and said that although it may sometimes seem appropriate to keep a stiff upper lip, it should not be allowed to endanger mental health.

Senior author of the NYU Langome study, Cheryl Pegus, says physicians could play a larger role in screening people and detecting signs of SPD and potential suicide.

“Our study supports health policies designed to incorporate mental health services and screenings into every physician's practice through the use of electronic medical records, and by providing training for all health care professionals, as well as the right resources for patients."

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