More than 46 million adults over the age of 18 have experienced some element of mental illness.
In fact, the rate is 50 percent higher for those between the ages of 18 to 25, compared to those above the age of 50. The impact of mental illness on the American society is crippling our national identity. What is most concerning is whether these staggering statistics on incidents are a reflection of poor access to mental health coverage and care, or a symptom of underlying social-economic pressures that push susceptible individuals over the brink.
What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., is a narrative that has unfortunately become a recurring theme for our nation and its communities.
While we may be quick to jump to the obvious contributing factors, which could have precipitated such a horrific event, the underlying impact of mental health issues cannot be over emphasized. Three years ago, health plans were required to treat mental health care and treatment of substance abuse on par with physical illness.
The motivation behind this change was an increasing awareness about the relatively low percentage of individuals who seek counseling or treatment for mental health issues. In fact, many advocacy groups pushed for nearly two decades to get this law passed in order to ease the stigma of mental illness. While access to coverage and services for those with mental health issues has certainly improved, these same benefits don’t necessarily apply to the individual market, and employers that don’t provide any healthcare coverage aren’t required to provide mental health care either.
This situation is somewhat ironic in that those who are clearly under the most pressure to make ends meet, living in dysfunctional circumstances, are often the ones who need the most help. Yet, our ability to bridge this gap has been less than optimal.
What further complicates the situation, is that certain mental health conditions such as depression, are often associated with other chronic conditions. In fact, 30 percent of individuals who have some sort of chronic conditions are more likely to have depression and other mental health issues. The challenge for individuals in seeking care is that medical necessity, as deemed by an insurance carrier or other care coordinator, sometimes comes in the way, and people are sometimes told they don’t need to see a psychiatrist or it’s not medically necessary.
From a macro-economic perspective, there is enough data to support the fact that mental health issues comprise one of the top five cost drivers for major employers and our society as a whole. The terrible tragedy at Newtown should be a wake-up call for instituting appropriate measures to provide the necessary coverage and treatment for individuals who really need it.
If more than half of those individuals who really need help are in the age group of 18 to 25, the problem really arises as to how we will ever know about the underlying issues of a group of individuals who are often not in the workforce and may be covered on their parent’s insurance plan — but nobody will ever know about the underlying problem.
A staggering statistic is that approximately 40 percent of incoming college students at major universities across the United States are on some kind of medication for anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. It’s reassuring to believe these young adults have sought the help they need, and are undergoing treatment.
However, the biggest questions still remain unanswered: How many young adults are there that need help and have yet to receive it? How many young adults are experiencing issues because of increasing social family pressures? Are we addressing the situation aggressively enough to prevent the next Sandy Hook from occurring?
Dr. Sreedhar Potarazu is an acclaimed ophthalmologist and entrepreneur who has been recognized as an international visionary in the business of medicine and health information technology. He is the founder of VitalSpring Technologies Inc., a privately held enterprise software company focused on providing employers with applications to empower them to become more sophisticated purchasers of health care. Dr. Potarazu is the founder and chairman of WellZone, a social platform for driving consumer engagement in health.