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75% of Americans think mental health issues are treated worse than physical illness, new survey says. Here’s why

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Mental health takes a backseat to physical health in the U.S., according to a new survey about the American health care system. About 75% of respondents said mental health issues are identified and treated “somewhat worse” or “much worse” than physical ailments—despite 81% perceiving an increased incidence of mental illness in the last five years.

West Health, a national nonprofit centered on aging and health care, teamed up with Gallup to poll nearly 2,300 U.S. adults in February. The results were released Wednesday.

About 5% of respondents thought mental health issues are treated “somewhat better” or “much better,” and 15% thought mental and physical health issues are treated equally. 

The older the respondents, the more likely they were to think mental health issues are treated worse:

  • 18–29: 66%
  • 30–49: 76%
  • 50–64: 78%
  • 65+: 82%

“Many Americans struggle with mental and behavioral health conditions that often go unaddressed in the context of treating and managing other medical conditions,” West Health President Timothy Lash said in a news release. “Health systems, providers, caregivers, and patients themselves need to pay just as much attention to mental health as they grow older as they do their physical health. The two are inextricably linked and critical to overall health, aging successfully, and quality of life.”

Respondents were also asked whether they had had a mental health condition themselves within the past year. Those who said no were more likely to think mental health is treated worse than physical health, 79% compared to 72% of people who had experienced mental illness.

The U.S. health care system’s report card was poor, too, with a plurality of respondents giving it a D in dealing with mental health conditions:

  • A: 1%
  • B: 8%
  • C: 27%
  • D: 32%
  • F: 25%

People perceive skyrocketing mental health conditions in US

The vast majority of respondents said the number of Americans with mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, has “increased some” or “increased a lot” compared to five years ago, 39% and 42%, respectively.

Women and people 50–64 were most likely to say incidence has increased, while men and people 30–49 were most likely to say it has stayed the same. Only 4% of all respondents said incidence has decreased.

Mental illness still clouded by stigma

The topic of mental illness may no longer be the taboo it was as recently as half a century ago, yet 70% of survey respondents felt society views people with mental health conditions “very negatively” or “somewhat negatively.” Just 6% said society doesn’t see them negatively at all.

Respondents who reported having a mental health disorder within the last year were more likely to say society has a negative opinion of people like them.

Adults 65 and older were most likely to think people frown upon mental illness, while young adults 18–29 were most likely to think society views mental illness more positively.

Cost of treatment major barrier to mental health care

Mental health treatment is too expensive. That’s the top factor respondents said would prevent them from seeking care for such a condition. Difficulty finding a provider was the second-most common reason. Respondents were allowed to select more than one reason; other choices included being able to deal with the condition without treatment, shame or embarrassment, and not thinking treatment would help.

People 18–29 and those who had recently had a mental health condition were most likely to say treatment is unaffordable. People 65 and older were least likely to say shame or embarrassment would prevent them from seeking treatment for a mental or emotional health condition. Respondents who hadn’t recently experienced mental illness were slightly more likely to say they could deal with such a condition without treatment.

“Effectively meeting the behavioral health needs of Americans and their families throughout the different stages of life requires providers, caregivers, policymakers, payers, and patients themselves work together to reduce barriers to care,” Lash said in the news release. “There are still sizable numbers of people not getting the treatment they need—a situation that may only worsen as the population ages. 

“Effective approaches, including integrated and person-centered models of behavioral health that deliver services through clinics or community-based organizations, should be more fully leveraged to ensure people are able to get the care they need when and where they need it.”

If you need immediate mental health support, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

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