Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study showing that rates of suicide have increased by nearly 30% since 1999. Moreover, the report stated that half of those who committed suicide did not have a documented mental illness at the time – suggesting that these life-threatening disorders are largely underreported.

Mental illnesses, like anxiety and depression, are not uncommon in the U.S. 43.8 million people, or 18.5 percent of the U.S. adult population, report having a mental illness. And, as mental health is undoubtedly linked to physical health, many people with chronic conditions such as diabetes or hypertension develop mental illness when facing difficulties with managing their condition. As of 2012, about half of all American adults were living with a chronic disease – which has far-reaching consequences due to the impact these conditions can have on a person’s mental health.

Yet, despite the prevalence of mental illness, access to mental healthcare remains an issue: 56 percent of Americans with a mental illness do not receive treatment for their condition(s).

Many people struggle to access suitable mental healthcare for various reasons, whether it be cost, transportation issues, or the negative stigma surrounding mental illness. However, new digital health solutions are offering patients a way to get the care they need, thereby providing a way to overcome some of the barriers to access care.

Improving Mental Healthcare Accessibility

Today, more mental health resources are available online and via apps than ever before, offering new care options that are not limited by price, time, or location. Telemental health can offer a connection to an in-network specialist, or to a specialist not otherwise available to a patient in a rural area. This means that although traditional, in-person mental healthcare may not be an option, patients can access therapy and treatment virtually, often directly from their home.

One major benefit of telemental health is its timeliness. Via mental health apps or virtual care platforms, providers can reach out to patients regularly to better monitor wellbeing. Additionally, patients often experience shorter wait times for treatment.

Financially Attainable Care

For many people, mental healthcare is not accessible due to the high associated cost. In addition to budget cuts to federal and state mental health programs that have occurred in recent years, many psychiatrists and other mental health professionals require patients to pay out of pocket. According to a 2014 study, only 55% of psychiatrists accepted health insurance in 2010, compared to 89% of all other healthcare professionals. This creates a high demand for the psychiatrists that are in-network, causing long wait times for care or blocking access altogether. As therapy sessions can often cost hundreds of dollars out of pocket, this leaves many people suffering from mental illness without access to the care they need.

As mental health continues to evolve, and the importance of management is better understood, many clinics and non-profit organizations are working to offer low-cost care to community members in need. Telehealth offers access to a psychiatrist at a more affordable cost, while also reducing the barrier of stigma to getting mental health aid. In the U.S., 32 states have private insurance companies that cover telemedicine, and Medicaid programs in 48 states cover some type of telepsychiatry.

Mental Health Apps

In addition to telemental health services, many phone applications are now available to provide additional support and education to people suffering from conditions like depression, anxiety, insomnia, and more. Though apps cannot replace the care that licensed mental health professionals can provide, they offer advantages that differ from traditional care. Many of these apps are free or come with low price tags and offer discreet and timely support. These can include support chat rooms, mood trackers, educational services, or behavioral change guidance – all of which can be valuable tools for emotional and mental support. A list of some mental health apps is available here.

Using Digital Health to Enhance Mental Healthcare

Despite the stigma that surrounds mental health, mental illness is a serious issue demanding high quality healthcare to address patients’ concerns and better manage mental conditions. Though access to traditional methods of healthcare is limited in many areas and for many populations, digital health is offering new avenues to access mental healthcare in a way that is more feasible – with a more flexible schedule and a lower cost.

As reimbursement opportunities for telehealth continue to grow, telemental health services can continue to expand to serve populations not receiving the necessary mental health treatments, while mental health apps can provide additional support.

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress and resources to aid in suicide prevention.

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