Red, Blue & You: Georgia’s Hidden Healthcare Crisis
Our state is among those that struggle the most to offer comprehensive, affordable mental healthcare.
From a young age, most of us learn about how to respond in a plethora of emergency medical situations. For example, if someone around you has a heart attack, you know to immediately call 911 and perform CPR if they have passed out.
We are also taught the basics of taking care of ourselves – how to eat right, exercise and make regular visits to the doctor.
When it comes to our mental health and the mental health of those around us, though, we are often left fumbling in the dark for what to do or how to act. This is not a problem unique to Georgia, but our state is among those that struggle the most to offer comprehensive, affordable mental healthcare. Our state ranks 48th in the country for access to mental healthcare, resources and insurance. An individual with serious mental illness has a one-in-five chance of ending up in prison instead of a hospital. Perhaps most concerning, two in five children have trouble accessing the mental health treatment they need.
While these problems have been brewing for a long time, the COVID-19 pandemic blew them into crisis levels. Surveys taken during the pandemic showed a major increase in the number of adults reporting symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia, compared with surveys before the pandemic. Substance abuse spiraled out of control as well, with a record number of people overdosing and dying nationwide in the 12-month period ending in January 2021, according to the Atlanta- based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes more than 1,900 Georgians, a nearly 40% increase in one year.
In a state that has routinely underfunded and deprioritized mental healthcare, we were not at all prepared to deal with the mental health epidemic within the pandemic.
The silver lining is that these issues became so prevalent that state legislators had no choice but to act, working to pass a bipartisan bill in the 2022 legislative session that forces insurers to cover mental health and substance abuse conditions the same way they cover physical conditions.
The legislation is not a panacea and there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure access to mental healthcare regardless of income, race or gender. Even with additional resources, one of the greatest threats to treating substance abuse and mental conditions remains the pervading stigma around them.
In 2020, over 50 million adults in the U.S. experienced mental illness. At the same time, one in six children between the ages of two and eight had a diagnosed mental, behavioral or developmental disorder. That means even if you are not currently struggling with mental health, someone you know certainly is, even if you are not aware of it. This is a problem that touches every life, and despite how common mental health struggles are, the stigma around them makes it a difficult topic to talk about and even harder to treat. Few of us would avoid going to the emergency room for a broken leg yet many people would never consider going to a counselor for chronic depression, even assuming it was affordable.
The stigma has real consequences. Nearly half of the 60 million adults and children living with mental health conditions in the United States go without any treatment. A 2019 study found that half of workers were concerned about discussing mental health issues at their jobs. More than one in three were concerned about retaliation or being fired if they sought mental healthcare. That’s not just bad for individuals, but for the economy as well; depression alone is estimated to account for $44 billion in losses to workplace productivity.
As individuals, we may not be able to fix the affordability and access crisis, but we can begin to address the stigma among our family, friends, neighbors and even professional colleagues.
No one should be afraid to say that they’re struggling or to ask for help. We can respond to those needs not with judgment or dismissal but with kindness and understanding. Only when we acknowledge the full scope of this problem can we get the right resources for people in need.
This is not a problem that can be fixed with one bill or in one year but if we continue to expand access and eliminate the stigma, we can save lives and make our state stronger.
If you or someone you know is struggling, the Georgia Crisis and Access Line is open 24/7 at 1-800-715-4225.