Many have psychological distress, few seek help

A new report finds that less than half of the people who may need mental health care receive it.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted Jan. 20, 2009

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In 2007, an estimated 24.3 million people, or 10.9% of the adult population, had symptoms of severe psychological distress. These include anxiety, depression or another mood disorder. But just 44.6% received mental health services, according to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report published late in 2008 and announced in a Jan. 7 news release.

"This is an important report because it demonstrates a fairly high prevalence in psychological distress in Americans, and less than half will receive services to treat it," said Kathryn Power, director of the agency's Center for Mental Health Services. The report is available online (link).

Experts said the role of primary care physicians in getting people help for these kinds of problems is key. Many patients see their doctors with physical complaints connected to their mental state.

"People with severe psychological disorders report severe backaches or headaches, or other kinds of signs that may indicate their emotional status," Power said.

Researchers analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and found that rates differed significantly by age and race. Young adults had the highest rates of serious psychological distress, affecting 17.9% of those age 18 to 25. The rate was 12.2% for those 26 to 49 and decreased to 7% for those older than 50.

Young adults were the least able to access care. Only 29.4% of those in this age group who experienced serious psychological distress received mental health services, but 47.2% of those age 26 to 49 did. Also, 53.8% of those older than 50 accessed services.

When broken down by race, 50.9% of whites got mental health services, but only 26.0% of African-Americans did. Analyzing the numbers by gender indicates that women are more likely to have serious psychological distress, and more likely to get treatment. About 13.4% of women experienced mental health issues, and 49.2% of them received services. Approximately 8.2% of men had this problem, and 36.7% got help.

Researchers suspect that the disconnect between need and care in part reflects a lack of access that may be addressed by recently passed mental health parity legislation. The Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 was signed into law Oct. 3, 2008, and supported by several major medical organizations, including the American Medical Association. "Hopefully, parity legislation will encourage people to think of their mental health on the same level as their physical health," Power said.

Of those who were treated, 87.0% received a prescription medication, and 61.3% got some form of outpatient care. Approximately 11.4% received inpatient help.

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