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Mental Illness Awareness Week and the Shortage of Psychiatrists

October 01, 2020

Mental Illness Awareness Week 2020

By Phillip Miller, VP at Merritt Hawkins

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has taken a serious and well documented toll on the physical health of many Americans.

What may be less well known is the toll the pandemic has taken on the nation’s mental health.  It’s a point worth considering, particularly as October 4 –10 marks national Mental Illness Awareness Week.

An April, 2020 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost half of all U.S. adults (45%) say the pandemic has affected their mental health, while 19% say it has had a “major impact.” (The Impact of Coronavirus on Life in America. Kaiser Family Foundation.  April, 2020).

Prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs spiked 34% between February 16 and March 15, and also increased for antidepressants (18.6%) and anti-insomnia drugs (14.8%), according to a report from Express Scripts (America’s State of Mind: U.S. Trends in Medication Use For Depression, Anxiety & Insomnia). Companies like Ginger and TalkSpace that deliver virtual mental health care have seen a massive surge in demand for services during the pandemic, with increases of 50% to 65% in February and March, 2020 (Open Minds/Strategy and Innovation Institute. April 23, 2020).

Even as mental health problems proliferate because of the pandemic, a national shortage of psychiatrists remains pervasive.

In March, 2017 the National Council of Behavioral Health released a report indicating that 77% of U.S. counties are experiencing a severe shortage of psychiatrists. Tens of millions of Americans live in federally designated Health Professional Shortage areas where mental health services are lacking. In Texas alone, 185 counties have no general psychiatrist, according to a Merritt Hawkins study. Unfortunately, the problem is likely to become more severe as more than 60% of psychiatrists are 55 years old or older.

Increasing access to mental health services was a national healthcare challenge that needed to be addressed before the pandemic. The problem is even more severe now. Mental Illness Awareness Week is a good time for America’s policy makers, healthcare professionals and the public to ask for action, which could begin with a coordinated effort to train more psychiatrists.

Phillip Miller is Vice President of Communications for Merritt Hawkins, a company of AMN Healthcare.

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