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The United States’ Greatest Barriers to Improved Mental Health Care Services and What Advocates Can Do to Enhance Care

What stops people who need mental health treatment from getting the support they need? While on average one in five American adults experiences some form of mental illness every year, just over 40% of people living with a mental health disorder receive treatment. What happened to discourage the other 60% of people from getting help and what can we do about it?

One of the greatest barriers to seeking mental health care is system capacity. There just aren’t enough mental health professionals or treatment centers available to meet the needs of the millions of Americans who need mental health treatment, including treatment for addiction.

Quality insurance coverage for mental health issues can also be a barrier to mental health treatment. Access to affordable health insurance eased somewhat with many states’ Medicaid expansions to include people within 138% of the federal poverty threshold. However, as Congress stands poised to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and without a concrete plan describing what will follow the ACA, some people may stand to lose their health insurance coverage. Estimates are that this number of people currently insured who will lose their access to care could be in the tens of millions.

The proposed shift in federal Medicaid funding from an open-ended entitlement program to a fixed-rate block grant is likely to decrease states’ available mental health resources as well. Opponents of the shift are concerned that one of the implicit goals of changing to a block grant funding structure is to save the government money, but in state budgets this cut could mean administrators will have to choose between the medical needs of different disadvantaged populations. If Medicaid becomes a block grant funded program, anyone utilizing the social safety net to connect to life saving treatment, including addiction treatment and outpatient counseling services, will likely lose some if not all of their benefits.

Entrenched social stigmas and cultural values also pose a major barrier to mental health treatment. Strict religious attitudes that equate mental health issues with moral weakness contribute to an environment that blames people for their mental health conditions instead of offering compassion and treatment.

While these and many other barriers to mental health treatment, including geographic location, primary language and immigration status, can prevent someone from getting the treatment they need, there is plenty that healthcare advocates can do to impact this situation. Participate in one of your state, city or county’s mental health awareness campaigns to raise the visibility of these issues and highlight the need for treatment and acceptance, not stigma. Petition your elected representatives directly to tell them a block-grant funding structure will spell disaster for people you care for if you know people who are benefiting from or need access to Medicaid. Find an organization working on affordable mental health care in your community and offer to volunteer in whatever way you can be of service. By recognizing our shared struggles and values, mental health care advocates can make a difference in the way our country addresses this vital issue.