The Cost of Mental Health: Seeking Community Solutions

Good mental health is effective functioning in daily activities resulting in good productivity (e.g., work, school), healthy relationships and the ability to cope with adversity. A threat to good mental health is mental illnesses, which are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Those experiencing mental illness may have difficulties functioning in social, work or family activities. Millions of Americans are affected by mental illness each year. Approximately one in five (20%) U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, with one in 20 experiencing a severe mental illness yearly. The great news is that mental illness is treatable, with most people continuing to function in their daily lives despite their mental illness.

Of the millions of U.S. adults experiencing mental illness in 2020, only 46% received treatment, leaving millions to deal with their mental diseases alone. Those dealing with depression have a 40% higher risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic disease than the general population. People with serious mental health illnesses are twice as likely to develop these same health complications. On the community level, it is estimated that almost 21% of the people experiencing homelessness have at least one serious mental health condition. And of those incarcerated, approximately 37% have a diagnosed mental illness. Untreated mental illnesses have a devastating impact on a person’s physical health and economic health, as serious mental illness accounts for $193.2 billion in lost earnings every year. With so much at stake, the solution appears to be simple—increase the percentage of people receiving mental health treatment.

Unfortunately, of the almost 330 million people living in the U.S., 148 million (45%) live in a designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Area, placing these individuals at considerably higher risk of experiencing the ripple effects of mental illness. With so many not having ready access to mental health services, community mental health centers are critical to meeting the demand for mental health treatment. Community mental health centers are community-based and provide mental services, often as an alternative to hospitals. These community centers are mainly funded by federal, state and county programs. Local governments, which allocate funds to various programs on their level, are often forced to decide where the limited funds are given. Community mental health centers need to be prioritized for funding, considering the effects of poor mental health on the individual and community.

In addition to the mental health professional shortage areas, there is a shortage of providers. The lack of providers has caused many people not to be able to receive treatment, even when proactively seeking it out. Many adults will simultaneously experience a substance use disorder with mental illness, often as a coping mechanism. The shortages of mental health professionals have resulted in inadequate access to treatment, at an alarming rate of 11% of individuals in need of substance abuse treatment receiving treatment. Mental health professionals commonly found in community health centers include social workers, psychiatrists, counselors, psychologists and peer support specialists. With funding shortages, community centers cannot hire professionals that can be of service to the community member. Some community centers also serve as assertive community treatment centers, where they provide services for mental health and offer housing assistance, financial management and employment services for the community members.

In 2014, the Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014 created the concept of certified community behavioral health clinics, which provide comprehensive mental health and substance use services to individuals, often at no cost. In 2021, new federal funding aimed to expand the number of certified community behavioral health clinics to 340. Local officials should encourage the community centers in their areas to adjust to meet the guidelines set forth to establish themselves as a certified community behavioral health clinic. With funding a constant issue for local municipalities, any investment in community mental health centers can also be cost-saving for other more expensive programs.

Author:  Alvin L. Morton III, M.S., Doctoral Candidate, University of Tennessee at Knoxville

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