Though there is a renewed emphasis on monitoring patient health and ensuring that they receive care options that fit their lifestyle, this flexibility seldom extends to patients with mental health issues. Despite the millions of Americans suffering from mental illnesses, carers have found themselves ill-equipped to deal with these new demands.
There was a time, not long ago, when individuals living with mental illness were treated as second class citizens and sequestered away in asylums. This cruelty, perpetuated over decades, is a shadow that hovers over America’s modern healthcare system. We still see a stigma associated with mental illness, which often prevents those afflicted from seeking proper care.
As a result, we see a growing population of patients that need mental healthcare and a shrinking pool of organizations that are able to give them the attention they deserve. Insurance coverage often does not allow for feasible mental health treatment or medications. These gaps in healthcare systems are causing many to reevaluate the role of the primary care physician and propose the integration of behavioral and mental health checkups for regular visits.
New research efforts are starting to find ways that mental health services can be integrated into existing healthcare structures. Some research has already led to favorable outcomes, such as an initiative dedicated to bringing better mental healthcare to Hispanic patients. Other minority populations have similar troubles, with language barriers and lack of cultural considerations both limiting factors.
This new data also reveals differences in treatment options across demographic lines. The most common mental healthcare options are medications, usually antidepressants, and therapy. The former was found to be the most popular option, though younger patients are more likely to prefer psychotherapy. Patient engagement is all about conforming to patient desires, and offering screenings for mental health issues and an avenue for pursuing treatment would be great additions to primary care programs.
However, even these options do not address some of the underlying reasons why patients do not receive the help they need. The stigma of mental illness is a barrier for many that should be seeking care. While an entire cultural shift is necessary to truly empower those in need of care, providers can work to build relationships with patients that make them more willing to seek out the help they need.
Coordinated care between clinics, particularly when a patient is seeking psychotherapy or similar treatment, can help create a seamless experience for them. While coordination is a central part of any patient engagement initiative, making a patient comfortable when visiting a new care provider is especially important when treating mental illness.
In short, there’s a large gap between physical and mental health services with no decisive answers as to how the problem can be fixed. Access to care, care affordability, and the ongoing reluctance to discuss mental illness all contribute to this issue. The silver lining here is that research is starting to make us aware that the problem exists, and integration of mental health services into primary care has proven to be a good step in the right direction. Going forward, a level of empathy will be necessary to create the environments necessary for patients to discuss their struggles with mental health—and ultimately seek out treatment on their own.