Mental Health Care in the United States

Mental Health Care in the United States

Women looking into cracked mirror

At any given time, an estimated 43 million Americans, or one in five adults, suffer from severe psychological distress. At the same time, there are fewer mental health workers than ever before. With only one mental health professional in the United States per 1,000 people, a growing number of mental health concerns are going unaddressed, the community-based nonprofit Mental Health America says.

Mental health disorders can cause changes in thinking, emotions and behavior. The diagnosis can range from mild to severe and impact daily life in a multitude of ways. Although mental illness is common throughout the country, there is little national discussion about improving access to mental health care. Studies also show that about 56 percent of Americans with mental illnesses do not get the treatment they need, such as counseling.

Across the country, more than 106 million people live in federally designated mental health professional shortage areas or areas that are in need of mental health providers.

Mental health workers throughout the country say it’s time to improve access to care and treatment, with an emphasis on early identification and intervention. Behavioral health advocates, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), say steps to overcoming barriers to mental health services include increasing the number of trained therapists and counselors. Graduates from online mental health counseling programs can fill these roles.

Barriers To Mental Health Treatment

Mental health advocates proclaim that increasing access to services is important to improving lives, yet patients must jump hurdles to get much-needed care.

Professionals have identified the following as common barriers to mental health treatment:

  • Living in rural and urban communities – Rural communities typically have few, if any, mental health providers and urban communities have long waiting lists. Either way, these barriers to access increase the likelihood patients will give up on seeking help, experts say.
  • Financial obstacles – In some case behavioral health professionals do not take insurance, leaving patients to pay outright for services. Even with health insurance, many patients cannot afford the ongoing medical costs associated with mental health care.
  • Inadequate education about mental health – Many people dismiss or ignore the signs and symptoms of mental illness, in part because they were not taught to recognize them.
  • Cultural and racial barriers – Some cultures, religions, ethnic groups, and races have designated emotional disorders as inconsistent with their beliefs and shunned treatment.
  • Social stigmas – Some patients with behavioral disorders fear discrimination and ridicule associated with the stereotypes of emotional illnesses.
  • Self-stigma –At times, patients feel shame and embarrassment regarding their mental health condition and avoid seeking the help they need.
  • Language barriers – Patients who find it easier to communicate in their native language may avoid seeking help if they cannot find assistance.
  • Fragmented healthcare system – Patients with separate medical and emotional health issues must interact with different providers, creating a siloed effect on healthcare and diminishing the chance patients will get what they need.
  • Mental health clinician shortage – Healthcare experts say up to 30,000 counselors, therapists, and other mental health providers must be added in the coming decade to prevent a wide-scale provider shortage. Students attending mental health counseling programs can work to be among the providers who resolve the impending shortage.

Common Mental Health Problems

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the country’s primary agency specializing in mental well-being, said behavioral illnesses could occur at any age, but up to three-quarters of all mental illnesses begin by age 24. When they do, providers turn to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which details standards and criteria for diagnosing mental disorders.

According to the DSM, there are several common psychiatric conditions in the United States:

  • Anxiety — About 40 million adults, or 18 percent of the population, have anxiety but only a fraction seek assistance, experts say. Anxiety is often diagnosed in association with one or more disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder.
  • Mood disorders – Major depression, persistent depressive disorder (PDD), and bipolar disorder are among the leading causes of mental health hospitalizations.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – Anyone who has experienced or witnessed trauma is at high risk for developing PTSD.

Improving Access To Mental Health Services

Healthcare professionals are not the only ones who say improving access to psychiatric services is the leading way to improving mental health in the United States. A 2016 survey found 88 percent of U.S. employers would focus on mental well-being as a priority. The survey, by the global brokerage firm Willis Towers Watson, found that employers comprehend the value in safeguarding the emotional health of employees. Among the finds were the following:

  • 61 percent of employers plan to integrate behavioral health with medical and disability case management for a more “holistic view of employee health.”
  • 56 percent plan to provide better support for complex mental health conditions.
  • 52 percent plan to expand access to care overall.
  • 47 percent plan to take steps to reduce workplace stress.
  • 41 percent plan to provide educational services to address stress and anxiety.

Julie Stone, a national healthcare practice leader at Willis Towers Watson, reviewed and concluded that employers are seeking to alleviate employee stress because they see an overall value to the company.

“Employers are concerned about behavioral health issues because of the impact on costs, employee health and productivity, and workplace safety,” she said.

In addition to employers provided mental health assistance, lawmakers, educators, and medical professionals are beginning to come together to address the lack of services and providers. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of HHS that focuses on substance abuse and mental health treatment, set a priority of expanding the behavioral health workforce in the coming years. The goal includes encouraging careers in behavioral health.

“’This workforce will enhance the availability of prevention and treatment for substance abuse and mental illness, strengthen the capabilities of behavioral health professionals, and promote health system infrastructure that can deliver competent, organized behavioral health services,” officials with SAMHSA said in the “Advancing Behavioral Health of the Nation” white paper.

Earning An Online Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) Degree From Regis College

A leader in mental health education, Regis College offers an online Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) degree for students interested in working to alleviate the mental health crisis in the United States. The school’s MAC program allows graduates to pursue counseling education in treating substance abuse, marriage and family problems, and other clinical mental health concerns. The online format allows students to work toward a degree while focusing on career advancement. For more information, contact Regis College.


Mental illness in the U.S.

2017 U.S. mental illness

Getting help

U.S. Health and Human Services

Mental health counselor shortage

Financial barriers

Common mental health problems


APA mental health problems

Employers and mental health

Stronger workforce