Americans, as a whole, remain underserved by the mental healthcare industry. In the following sections, we’ll cover many of the specific challenges that hinder access on a systemwide basis. The bottom line is that access to mental and behavioral health solutions is not where it needs to be.
Unfortunately, access is worse in some places than in others. Many communities face acute mental health provider shortages. This is especially true in rural areas and smaller population centers, where patients still lack in-community options — despite the successful efforts of providers like Oceans Healthcare, whose recent expansion is based in large part on filling geographic gaps in behavioral health coverage.
How does the situation look on the ground in these communities? Let’s examine six key challenges facing populations that aren’t well-served by mental health providers.
1. Long Travel Times to Reach Mental Health Providers
When they lack suitable mental healthcare options in their home communities or require a level of specialization that local healthcare providers can’t meet, patients must hit the road. It’s not uncommon for patients in smaller cities and rural areas to travel two, three, four hours each way — or longer — simply to make in-person appointments with their preferred providers.
Those that can’t or prefer not to drive themselves must impose on family members or caregivers, or pay a bus fare out of pocket. And rather than turn right around and head home after the appointment, long-distance patients may choose to stay overnight — an added expense and inconvenience.
2. Long Wait Times for Mental Healthcare Appointments
No patient should have to wait three or four months for scheduled care. But such wait times are routine in high-need communities with behavioral health provider shortages. Unfortunately, this adversely affects outcomes and can increase strain on first responders like police and paramedics. Prompt behavioral health intervention isn’t simply a convenience; it’s often a matter of life and death.
3. High Out-of-Pocket Costs for Mental Health Services
Communities underserved by the mental health industry also tend to be underserved by healthcare payers. That is, even when suitable behavioral healthcare support exists in a particular low-resource community, that support isn’t guaranteed to be in-network for patients with private insurance (or Medicare or Medicaid, for that matter). Patients who can afford to pay out-of-pocket may choose to do so; those that can’t are out of luck, regardless of need.
4. Over-Reliance on One or Two Providers
A beloved healthcare provider can be a pillar of the community without shaking that community to its core when they retire or move away. Unfortunately, that’s the impossible situation in which behavioral healthcare professionals often find themselves in communities where they bear a disproportionate share of the care burden.
5. Strain on Behavioral Telehealth Providers
Mental healthcare access issues don’t stay isolated in the communities they afflict directly. They bleed over into communities with adequate on-the-ground mental health resources, creating a regional or even systemwide contagion that affects other aspects of care.
One increasingly visible manifestation of this contagion is the overwork and emotional strain experienced by behavioral telehealth providers tasked with picking up the slack for underserved communities. No matter how efficiently they work, these providers can’t help everyone who needs them, and that takes a toll.
6. Strain on Non-Behavioral Health Resources
We’ve already noted the stress poor mental health coverage places on the first responder community. It’s also a source of strain (and cause of professional burnout) for non-behavioral healthcare providers, especially those in acute care facilities. When inadequate behavioral health manifests in overloaded emergency rooms and surgical suites, healthcare policymakers and community leaders need to recognize it for what it is: a frontline defense against poor healthcare outcomes and an investment in stronger, more cohesive communities.
Patients Deserve Better
It’s all about the patients. At least, it should be.
Let’s be honest. The mental healthcare community doesn’t always live up to what should be a very simple mission: to provide the best possible care to anyone and everyone who needs it.
The mental health provider shortage is one of the biggest hurdles. And because the provider shortage isn’t evenly distributed across the country, patients in some areas face even higher barriers to care than others. That deficit affects us all.
Patients deserve better. It’s time for the mental health industry to rise to the challenge.