Increasing access to mental healthcare should be a top priority in the medical field. As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the country, our main stressors; employment, healthcare, and poverty, have been exacerbated. The stigma around mental healthcare has slowly been diminishing but there hasn’t been a simultaneous increase in the number of providers. COVID-19 is increasing the need for mental healthcare and to determine how this need is being met, United Way of the National Capital Area conducted a data study of mental healthcare access and attitudes across the United States.
Some of the findings are surprising while some are not. The southeastern United States has the worst access to mental healthcare with a very high ratio of residents to mental healthcare providers. Alabama has 990 residents to one provider, West Virginia has a ratio of 770:1 and Georgia’s ratio is 730:1. Other Southern states don’t fare much better. States that have exceptional access to mental healthcare are Massachusetts at a ratio of 160 residents per provider and Oregon at 190:1. Maine and Delaware share third place with 210 residents per provider.
Since stigma is another hurdle that the mental healthcare industry needs to overcome, the study looked at how comfortable Americans were seeking mental health for themselves or their loved ones. The results, especially in the states that had high access were very interesting. In Massachusetts, only 7.84% of the respondents said they would be very uncomfortable seeking mental healthcare while 41.18% said they’d be very comfortable. The low levels of discomfort are also present with other states that have high levels of access, with Oregon at 12.96% and Maine at 9.43%. Interestingly, Delaware has a comparatively high rate of people being uncomfortable seeking help at 20%. This number is more in line with states that have little access to mental healthcare. 21.57% of respondents in Alabama reported being very uncomfortable accessing mental health resources while that number drops to 18% in Georgia and 14% in West Virginia. While the study does not claim that low levels of access to mental health resources causes discomfort and stigma around using them, the data reveals that the higher the ratio of residents to providers, the higher the discomfort levels in that area.
Access to mental health care entails different services in today’s age. COVID-19 has forced the mental healthcare industry to make their telehealth offerings more robust. But will people want to take advantage of these offerings? Even in the states with high access to mental healthcare resources (Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon), on average, 19.8% said they’d feel very uncomfortable accessing telehealth instead of in-person mental health resources while only 12.53% said they’d feel more comfortable. The survey was conducted in June 2020, showing that despite being in the throes of the pandemic, people are distrustful of telehealth.
With the pandemic and the hardships it has brought upon all Americans, mental health resources have become available online. However, increased mental healthcare is still a growing necessity. Despite advances in technology, access to in-person mental health resources must remain a priority, especially in areas where access is restricted. Improving education, whether through classes, school presentations, or advocacy is a crucial first step in removing barriers and making mental health resources equitably available, during the pandemic and into the future.