In 1949, the Mental Health America organization established May as Mental Health Awareness Month. Back then, no one talked about mental health, and anyone struggling with “those” issues was told to toughen up. There was little sympathy or understanding of the complexities of the mind and how it can suffer from illness as easily as the rest of the body.
Honestly, despite more than seventy Mays, there is still a huge stigma attached to mental health. People are continually encouraged to just “get over it.” Treatment is barely covered by health insurance, and people feel ashamed if they are struggling with anxiety, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, or any of the dozens of things that can impact the brain.
I was one of those people for too long. I didn’t want to accept my diagnosis of PTSD, and there were several well-meaning people in my life who just didn’t understand why I was still struggling more than a year after I was attacked. It wasn’t until I accepted what I was going through that I could get the treatment I needed and have important conversations with the people who cared about me.
Awareness, quite frankly, isn’t enough. It’s a great start because it increases our understanding and when that happens, treatment isn’t seen as some shameful secret. We should be talking about mental health and creating an environment where it’s as easy a conversation as talking about heart disease.
But along with that, we need the treatment component and we need it to be far more accessible and affordable. According to Mental Health America, more than 26 million people suffering from mental illness—more than half of all adults who have some kind of mental health issue—didn’t receive treatment in 2020. That’s from a combination of factors, from hesitancy to lack of coverage, but in the end, the results are the same—hurting people aren’t receiving care. It’s like telling someone who is in the middle of a heart attack to just wait in the hall because the hospital can’t help them yet. That’s an unimaginable scenario for cardiac patients. It should be the same for mental health patients.
The 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was designed to prevent insurers from charging more or denying mental health coverage more than they did physical ailments. Nevertheless, the cost of treatment remains high and out of reach for too many people. The average therapy session costs between $60 and $120, which adds up quickly, especially for people in lower-income brackets, economically depressed areas, or anyone who is struggling to make ends meet. Employers often limit mental health treatment to three EAP visits. That’s not nearly enough time to work on any kind of mental illness. That’s like saying to a diabetic—here are three testing strips. Good luck.
According to a recent article by CNBC, more than 112 million Americans live in areas where access to mental health treatment is difficult to find. The areas are too rural or there simply aren’t enough providers. Only about half of all psychiatrists even take traditional commercial insurance policies. That leaves a lot of people out in the cold, unable to afford treatment.
So yes, we are having the conversations, but we aren’t taking the actions we need to take. We are aware there’s a problem—but not enough people are demanding change. Doctors in other fields need to be trained to look for mental health issues so they can refer and encourage their patients to get treatment. We need more affordable mental health options like Talkspace and BetterHelp so that people can easily find a resource that fits them.
I’ve talked about my book in previous columns, not because I want everyone to rush out and buy it, but because I want to be one of the voices who says it’s okay to admit you need help and to find that help. I want to be a part of the conversation—and the change that needs to happen. One voice can join another voice and then another, and that rising tide will force the antiquated systems and structures to move in a better direction.
If you or someone you love needs help, there’s a helpline at NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (800-950-NAMI), to point you in the right direction of affordable resources. There are people out there who are ready to listen and help,
Let’s have the conversation—and then let’s all do something concrete to change lives.