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Mental health services struggled to meet increased demand during pandemic, study finds

Anxiety, depression, and emergency room visits for drug overdoses and suicide attempts have all increased during the pandemic, while behavioral health services over the past year have struggled to respond to a increased demand, according to a study released Friday by the US Government Accountability Office.

The study analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which found that 27% more adults in the United States reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic, between April 2020 and February 2021, compared to 2019. Emergency room visits for drug overdoses increased by 36% and emergency room visits for attempted suicide increased by 26% in the past year compared to the same period of the previous year.

But more than half of behavioral health services said they had to cancel, postpone patient appointments or turn people away from services in late 2020 and early 2021, according to a survey cited in the GAO report and conducted by the National Behavioral Health Council, a mental health advocacy association. According to the survey, organizations reported program closures, shortened hours of operation and layoffs of employees.

And the shortages should not stop, according to the study. The Health Resources and Services Administration has predicted that by 2025, seven types of mental health care providers, such as social workers and therapists, could face severe shortages.

According to the GAO report, stakeholders told researchers that struggles to meet demand were a “long-standing problem” and attributed the shortages to a lack of employees, reimbursement rates from medical providers and to the capacity of the health system. In 2013, about 3.9 million adults with serious mental illnesses reported unmet mental health care needs, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The study found that availability issues particularly affected those in rural areas and patients using Medicaid, potentially due to the shortage of trained healthcare professionals in the area and routine denials of Medicaid payment in processing services. behavioral health, according to the report. The Health Resources and Services Administration found in September 2020 that more than a third of Americans lived in areas of shortage of designated mental health care providers.

Sen. Ron Wyden, a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, asked the Government Accountability Office in May last year to conduct a study to ensure that insurance plans covering mental health services were meeting their needs. legal requirements and covered care for those in need.

Wyden said at the time: “The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed gaps in the health care system, and mental health care is no exception.”


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