Mental health is an integral component of our overall well-being that is often neglected due to stigma and other concerns, which delays treatment and leads to adverse outcomes. Good mental health reduces healthcare costs because it promotes positive physical health behaviors, prevents or manages chronic illnesses, and reduces the need for costly medical treatments and ongoing care.
The Cost of Poor Mental Health
Mental health conditions are prevalent worldwide and contribute to a significant burden of disease. In 2021, there were an estimated 57.8 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States with a mental illness according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Individuals with mental health issues may require more frequent and prolonged medical care including hospitalizations, outpatient visits, and medication management. According to the World Economic Forum, the cost of mental health conditions and their related consequences is projected to rise to $6 trillion globally by 2030. Likewise, the cost of medication, therapy, and hospitalization are a significant financial burden for individuals and their families.
Mental health issues can also lead to other health problems such as chronic illnesses, which may require additional medical care and treatment. For example, individuals with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety may be more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and drug use, which can lead to physical health problems like chronic pain, cancer, diabetes, liver disease, and heart disease.
Finally, individuals with mental health issues may be less able to work or function effectively, leading to lost productivity and income. Untreated mental health conditions can also lead to indirect costs resulting from disability, work-related absenteeism, and reduced productivity. This can result in increased healthcare costs, as well as other indirect costs to society, such as increased disability payments and reduced economic output.
Barriers to Mental Health Care
The stigma surrounding mental health is a significant barrier. Many individuals with mental health conditions do not seek treatment due to fear of discrimination. Stigma can lead to social exclusion and a lack of access to essential health care services. Delays in treatment can result in the progression of the mental health condition, leading to more significant health care costs.
Additionally, some insurance plans may not cover mental health conditions or may have limited coverage, resulting in high out-of-pocket costs for individuals seeking treatment. The provider shortage is also leading to long wait times or inability to access mental health care altogether.
The Need for Physical and Mental Health Care Integration
Mental and physical health are interconnected, and addressing mental health problems can have a significant impact on overall outcomes. However, mental health services are often provided separately from physical health services. This fragmentation can result in delayed or inadequate treatment, which increases health care costs. Integrating mental health services into primary care can lead to improved access and better treatment outcomes. Additionally, integrating mental health services into primary care can help reduce stigma and improve the overall quality of care.
As our nation continues to make slow, incremental progress toward value-based care, digital mental health solutions can support primary care providers in several ways:
- Screening and assessment: Digital mental health tools can provide screening and assessment tools for mental health conditions, allowing primary care providers to identify individuals who may need additional support or referral to a mental health specialist.
- Treatment and support: Digital mental health solutions can provide treatment and support options for individuals with mental health conditions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or mindfulness-based interventions.
- Patient education: Digital mental health solutions can provide educational resources for patients on mental health conditions, treatment options, and self-care strategies. This can help primary care providers educate their patients about how to manage their mental health.
- Collaborative care: Digital mental health programs and services that incorporate clinician coaches or teletherapy providers can facilitate patient referrals to mental health professionals as needed, fostering timely and appropriate care and streamlining the referral process.
Digital Mental Health Services Lower Barriers to Care
We have an opportunity to improve overall quality of care and reduce costs by addressing mental health concerns. Evidence-based, digital mental health programs lower barriers to care by providing greater accessibility, affordability, and anonymity for individuals seeking mental health support. Here are some ways in which digital mental health can lower barriers to care:
Convenience. Digital mental health services are more convenient than traditional in-person services because they can be accessed from anywhere, at any time. Self-paced programs, combined with clinician coaching, can also alleviate the provider shortage and improve access and equity for many more people. This is particularly important for people who live in remote areas, have mobility issues, or have difficulty taking time off work to attend appointments.
Affordability. Digital mental health services are often less expensive than traditional in-person services. This can make mental health services more accessible to people who may not have insurance coverage or who may not be able to afford traditional services. If these programs are provided via a health plan or employer, they can be made available to large populations at no cost to them individually.
Anonymity. Digital mental health services allow people to seek help without the fear of stigma or judgment. This can be particularly important for people who may feel ashamed or embarrassed about their mental health struggles.
Personalization. Digital mental health services can be tailored to meet individual needs and preferences, which may result in more effective treatment outcomes.
Overall, digital mental health is improving access to mental health services by making them more convenient, affordable, and personalized, while also reducing the stigma associated with seeking help. This can help to increase access to mental health care for individuals who may not have otherwise sought treatment, and ultimately generate significant cost savings and improved productivity. It is important to note that while digital mental health solutions can be effective, they should not replace traditional mental health care entirely. Rather, they should be used as a complementary tool to provide additional support and services to those who need them.
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