Opinion

To Protect our Future, Today’s Mental Health System Must Empower Patients

 

The hardest problems to fix are often those you can’t see — which is just one of the many reasons that mental health issues can be so insidiously difficult to address. Likewise, you can’t easily see the challenges facing a healthcare industry ill-equipped to deal with these challenges. Currently, we have far more patients needing treatment for mental illnesses than we have resources to provide such treatment.

But we can all see the headlines, and the reports aren’t becoming any less gruesome. In fact, a recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics found that the age-adjusted suicide rate in the United States skyrocketed by 24 percent between 1999 and 2014. Moreover, a recent survey by Morning Consult and University of Phoenix College of Social Sciences found that nearly half of voters are concerned about their mental health and well-being in the future.

Americans are finally speaking out, and the need to listen has never been clearer. In the current state of our health system, we are at risk for letting these life-or-death issues, and the patients affected by them, fall through the cracks. As the statistics continue to grow, and as healthcare technology, costs and policies continue to change, we must adapt our approach to addressing the diagnosis and treatment of mental health, as well as the training of mental health professionals.

In the last few months, President Obama has made calls for increased funding to expand health care coverage, and even global leaders are working to make mental health a priority of the world health agenda. We aren’t treating enough people, and what’s worse is that we aren’t equipped to. Data shows that there are not enough mental health counselors or specialists available in the U.S. to treat those with mental illness.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, there are thousands of areas that are experiencing a shortage of mental health professionals, and only 50 percent of those shortage needs are being met. Not only is there a mental professional shortage in the sector, but according to a recent survey by the Association of American Medical Colleges, 59 percent of psychiatrists are 55 or older, meaning that many may soon be retiring or reducing their workload.

This highlights the demand not only for expanded services and facilities like clinics and in-home care, but also highly skilled mental health care and psychiatric professionals to deliver the care and expertise to support the health and wellness of Americans well into the future.

Along with reasonable costs and accessibility to appropriate counseling and mental health care services, the perceived stigmas associated with mental health are also a huge barrier, as the Morning Consult survey found that 46 percent of voters say people with mental illnesses are unpredictable and 21 percent find people with mental illnesses dangerous.  Although many individuals recognize mental illness as a real medical illness, the same survey found that roughly one in four (26 percent) voters say they would not tell anyone if they had a mental illness.

In my experience, it takes the professionals to recognize the barriers to limitations to care. That’s why the University of Phoenix College of Social Sciences runs counseling skills centers in select markets across the country, for example, which serve as educational training facilities that provide free mental health services to those seeking affordable mental health care in the community. In addition, our relationship with the National Alliance of Mental Illness is designed to further inform programs and prepare counseling students to meet the needs of those experiencing mental health issues.

Empowering individuals to learn about their own needs and care must be incorporated into how we evolve mental health care and education. With so much information constantly available at the touch of our fingertips, individuals should have the information available to determine if they are struggling with something as serious as mental illness, and just as importantly, they should have access to the necessary resources for proper treatment. And many agree, with the same Morning Consult survey finding that more than half of voters (55 percent) believe all adults should be screened annually for depression and other mental health issues.

While the issues are being politically debated on a national level, at the end of the day it takes a mind to save a mind. It is up to higher education institutions and psychiatric and counseling professionals to make sure we are providing not only the right resources for those with barriers to needed support and help, but also educating the future professionals who will deal with these complex issues. It’s time we not only see the problem ahead, but also search for solutions.

Constance St. Germain is executive dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences and the College of Social Sciences with University of Phoenix.

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