More and more Americans are getting mental health care – and drugs – but the ones utilizing these services most are the ones that need it least, new research reveals.
Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center found what seemed, at first, like good news: more Americans are seeking out mental health care and fewer are reporting intense psychological distress.
But the problem is that this increasing mental health care is perhaps being given disproportionately to those that public health officials are less concerned about.
Meanwhile, more drugs are being prescribed, especially to groups who are not in particularly serious psychological distress.
People with no or low levels of serious distress are getting more psychological or psychiatric care while those in the most dire need of help are less likely to get it, the new study found.
The number of people using mental health services is rising, while overall rates of serious psychological distress are falling – but care rates are rising fastest among those in less need
About one in five Americans has some sort of struggle with mental illness in a given year, but the new
Considering that mental illness is often under-reported and that that rate is already quite high, there ought to be a lot of Americans seeing therapists, psychologists or other mental health professionals.
The new study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that between 2004 and 2015, the number of Americans making use of any outpatient mental health service increased by 21 percent.
In 2015, 23 percent of the 140,000 Americans the researchers surveyed had seen some form of mental health care professional.
That puts services pretty well in line with rates of mental illness.
But there’s a gap between who is getting services and who needs them.
For one, those who report serious mental illness account for a small sample of both the American public and of the sample population for the new study.
About one in 25 people goes through a significant mental health issue each year, and about seven percent of the respondents to the new survey reported serious distress.
That makes it difficult for the Columbia researchers to draw significant conclusions about this population, while what they saw among the majority of respondents, who didn’t have serious mental distress, was quite robust.
Over 12 years they examined, the researchers found that 23.5 percent more people in serious distress use mental health services.
By comparison, the number of relatively stable people going to work through issues with therapists or to get prescriptions from psychiatrists increased by 26 percent – nosing ahead of the rise seen among people in greater need.
The researchers suspect that some patients may be playing the system to fulfill wants as much as needs.
‘Our study shows there’s a mismatch in the U.S between those with the greatest need who may not be getting mental health care they need and a growing number of Americans who are getting treatments – including psychiatric drugs – they may not need,’ says Dr Mark Olfson, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and lead author of the paper.
Psychiatric drug use rose among both those who were in distress and those who were not.
By 2015, 64 percent of those with serious psychological issues used some form of medication, a nearly 30 percent increase over 2004.
The change among those who were not in distress was similar, with 27 percent more using prescription drugs to manage symptoms that fell short of ‘serious distress’ in 2015 than in 2004.
‘We were encouraged to see greater overall use of mental health care, especially among those who need it most, though we were concerned about the increase in the proportion of individuals with less serious distress who are being treated with psychiatric drugs, which carry their own health risks,’ Dr Olfson says.