A Wider Lens Is Needed to Treat Those With Mental Illness

This week marks Mental Health Awareness Week, an important opportunity to bring attention to the impact mental illness has on 1 in 5 Americans.

Today, depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States, and it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide. Those living with serious mental illness face worse health outcomes and, on average, die 25 years earlier than others.

Unfortunately, these conditions disproportionately impact the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, hitting underserved communities especially hard. Minorities tend to have less access to and availability of mental health services, and according to the National Association of Mental Illness, African-Americans and Hispanic Americans used mental health services at about half the rate of whites in the past year.

[Read: Beyond the Wrist — Rethinking Wearable Technology for Mental Health.]

So how do we create better solutions?

To treat mental illness effectively, we must first overcome the stigma associated with it. Societal pressures and misconceptions about mental illness prevent many from seeking the help they need, and all too often, those impacted suffer in silence.

Next, we must help connect those living with mental illness to the most appropriate levels of care. According to the National Association of Mental Illness, nearly 60 percent of adults with a mental illness didn’t receive mental health services in the previous year. We must help connect those with mental health conditions to the most appropriate therapies — from less intensive outpatient centers, counseling and drug therapies, to more intensive treatments such as inpatient and residential care when necessary.

And, while great strides have been made in developing better medical treatments, only recently have we begun to recognize the problem can’t be solved by medical interventions alone. It’s estimated physical health interventions account for only 10 percent of health outcomes; the rest can be attributed to individual behavior and social, environmental and genetic factors.

[See: Am I Just Sad — or Actually Depressed?]

Therefore, to effectively treat mental illness, we must address the social, economic and environmental factors that impact our health. Lack of transportation, housing, employment and a strong support system have a major impact on health outcomes — especially for those with mental illness — and when lacking, can make it especially difficult to get proper medical care. These issues are particularly relevant to those on Medicaid, the public health insurance program for low-income Americans and the largest source of health coverage in the nation. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2015, Medicaid covered 21 percent of adults with mental illness, 26 percent of adults with serious mental illness and 17 percent of adults with substance use disorder. In comparison, Medicaid covered 14 percent of the general adult population.

These are huge systemic issues that can’t be tackled by the health care community alone. But there are models being implemented at the state level that build a bridge between the health care system and available social services. These models are showing success in addressing basic human needs and, in turn, producing better health outcomes and lower costs.

At WellCare, we take a holistic approach in addressing the health care needs of our Medicaid members. By bringing together a team of providers — from licensed behavioral health clinicians to community health workers to pharmacists — we work one-on-one with members to coordinate medical and pharmacy care, while helping to coordinate additional social support services that impact our health such as food and housing assistance, medical transportation or utilities assistance.

[See: 11 Simple, Proven Ways to Optimize Your Mental Health.]

There are no simple solutions to treating mental illness. But we can make progress toward that end by working together. Recognizing, addressing and speaking candidly about the many factors that heighten the risk of mental illness, while offering innovative solutions to address the issues beyond just health care that prevent patients from getting the care they need, is an important step toward improving the lives and health of all Americans.

Mark Leenay is senior vice president and chief medical officer of WellCare Health Plans, Inc.

More from U.S. News

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11 Simple, Proven Ways to Optimize Your Mental Health

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A Wider Lens Is Needed to Treat Those With Mental Illness originally appeared on usnews.com

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