The scene was a focus group of young adults in western North Carolina, part of a community assessment of local health needs conducted more than a year ago. Of the many issues discussed, the gaps in mental health services drew some of the most passionate comments.
Theres a lot of depression on campus, and some people commit suicide, said one of the young participants. People arent open about their problems and need to know theyre not alone.
In the wake of the tragedy at Virginia Tech University, these words seem hauntingly prophetic. Now that the intense national media focus has moved on from Blacksburg, it is time for those of us in the healthcare sector to examine what we must do to address the fatal flaws in how our nation deliversor more correctly, fails to delivermental health services to those who need them.
A number of trends have converged to push the problem to the point of crisis. Nationally, U.S. Census Bureau data indicates almost 16% of Americans lack health insurance. Even for those who have it, mental health benefits are typically inadequate. Meanwhile, the laudable goal of deinstitutionalizing the delivery of mental healthcare has sadly led to reduced access, as funding for community-based mental health services has not kept pace with the needs.
The result: Too many Americans suffering from mental health problems are not getting help. Institute of Medicine data indicate that only 41% of adults with a diagnosed severe mental illness actually received treatment from 2001 to 2003. Community hospitals have been valiantly trying to fill the gap, as the number of people seeking mental healthcare through emergency departments has been steadily climbing.