A person sitting with their hands clasped meeting with a mental health professional.

How to Find Mental Health Support When Access Is Limited

By Jessica Hicks
July 21, 2022

The gap between those who need mental healthcare and those who actually have access to it remains quite substantial, according to the World Health Organization. And this divide, between need and access, was an issue long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Jillian Hughes, a crisis counselor and the communications director for the community-based nonprofit organization Mental Health America (MHA), nearly a quarter of adults with mental illness in the United States are not able to receive the treatment they need—a stat that hasn't declined in the last 10 years.

“People looking for mental health treatment who are unable to get it face these barriers and more: no insurance or limited coverage of services, an overall undersized mental health workforce, and lack of available treatment types, like inpatient treatment, individual therapy, or intensive community services,” Hughes explains.

Where Mental Health Services Are Lacking—and for Whom

COVID-19 has only deepened inequities in the mental healthcare landscape, not just in the United States, but across the globe. One survey shows that during the pandemic, more than 60 percent of countries have reported disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable populations, including children, adolescents, older adults, and women in need of pre- or postnatal care—not to mention the barriers already faced by other marginalized groups, such as veterans, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, those experiencing homelessness, and people with disabilities.

Additional factors that have contributed to the gaping hole in mental healthcare include a disconnect between primary care and behavioral health systems, as well as a shortage of psychiatrists, Hughes says.

How Health Insurance May Present a Barrier

Then, there’s insurance, which paradoxically, can make the process of receiving care more daunting. Amira Johnson, M.S.W, a therapist at Berman Psychotherapy, based in Georgia, points out that the very benefits that can make treatment options more affordable to some, by lowering out-of-pocket costs, can deter people from seeking help because it requires labeling their mental health condition.

“Most providers that accept insurance benefits must provide a patient with a diagnosis in order for insurance to cover their treatment,” Johnson explains. “For some, being diagnosed with a mental illness may cause them to identify with being ‘depressed’ or ‘anxious’ rather than giving themselves grace and space to simply recognize that they are in a difficult space at the moment.”

4 Ways Mental Health Services Could Be Made More Accessible

In the face of existing barriers, and with limited resources, millions of people around the world face an uphill battle in getting help. While change must take place on societal and institutional levels, these four steps might make the process of finding care a bit easier.

1. Normalize Mental Health Care

“An additional barrier to care is the stigma surrounding mental health. Many people were raised in environments where people were told to ‘be strong’ or ‘you have nothing to be sad about,’ when they went through bouts of sadness or anger,” Johnson explains. “This can lead to viewing those who choose to receive help as inadequate or crazy because of their perceived inability to be strong.”

Part of making mental healthcare more accessible is shifting how we view mental health. In particular, we must start seeing that it’s not only as important as physical health but also part of our physical well‑being. Once we see the two as interconnected—and of equal importance—we can begin to break down stigmas and give ourselves and the people we care about the validation needed to seek help.

2. Go Virtual

If you have access to the internet and a place where you feel safe to discuss your situation, online support options are a great way to get the care you need from home. This may be especially true if you’ve encountered physical limitations to getting treatment, such as transportation issues or physical disabilities, that make going to in-person care difficult.

Hughes recommends using online tools, like the clinically validated mental health screenings from MHA, that direct you to additional resources, depending on your results. The key, though, is to ensure that these tools are science-backed and vetted by mental health practitioners.

3. Seek a Sliding Scale

Perhaps one of the most restrictive factors in accessing mental healthcare is the cost, which can run as high as hundreds of dollars per outpatient session and creep into the thousands for inpatient psychological and addiction treatment. Johnson recommends finding practitioners who offer sliding scales, meaning that they charge a lower amount based on clients’ available resources and income.

4. Tap into Your Community

Your community may offer more mental health support than you’re aware of—and that support is often low-cost or free. Hughes recommends inquiring about services at your school, workplace, or community health center.

Johnson suggests tapping into nonprofit organizations. “For individuals who may need a more structured level of care, such as participating in an inpatient or outpatient program, they connect with the admissions teams of the facilities they are interested in and inquire about scholarship opportunities,” Johnson explains. “Some providers may offer scholarships for those who can provide documentation showing they are unable to afford services.”

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