Equitable mental healthcare means valuing the patient journey

Everyone has a story to tell. When it comes to mental healthcare, creating space for patients to share their lived experiences can be invaluable and help guide their journeys in ways that would have otherwise been impossible. Patients are people first and healthcare must be delivered as human care.

It must never be forgotten that the view of the world looks very different through each patient’s eyes. Recognizing this can provide valuable insight into how as a society we can work together towards more equitable access to mental healthcare.

On the surface burdens patients face are not always obvious. For example, work flexibility and transportation barriers cannot be seen. Minority populations, in particular, often suffer from poor mental health outcomes due to multiple factors including inaccessibility of high-quality mental healthcare services, cultural stigma surrounding mental healthcare, discrimination, and overall lack of awareness about mental health1.

Realizing mental illness as a chronic condition

Investing in mental healthcare saves lives and dollars. We have known this for decades, but until now did not fully understand the monumental impacts of neglecting to act. Nearly 25 years ago, then U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher said, “There is no health without mental health,” yet today we are at a tipping point.

For the first time, there is tangible evidence demonstrating how decades of systemic health disparities have yielded significantly worse outcomes for racial and ethnic minoritized, marginalized, and medically underserved populations.

Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc., a leader in mental health, has funded research led by the Satcher Health Leadership Institute (SHLI) at Morehouse School of Medicine that examines the cost of not investing in mental healthcare, and the findings are staggering.

The Economic Burden of the Mental Health Inequities Report looked at a four-year period (2016-2020) and found, at minimum, more than 116,000 lives and approximately $278 billion could have been saved.

Furthermore, SHLI found that national estimates chronically underrepresent the actual burden of mental healthcare disparities, which has crippling implications on policies, funding, access to care and resources. To put this into perspective, nearly six million Americans are not accounted for in national reporting estimates regarding mental healthcare.

This is detrimental on many levels — most importantly lives are being lost — but also decisions are being made based on inaccurate data, which is perpetuating an ongoing cycle of inaction.

Every stakeholder must fully appreciate that mental illness is chronic, not acute, or temporary condition, and should be resourced and treated as such by policymakers and all stakeholders in the mental health community continuum.

Acknowledging the role of unconventional thinking

Our current mental health system is not set up to serve those who need the most help. Comprehensive mental/behavioral health services must encompass a continuum of care beginning with prevention and early intervention and identification, spanning treatment, recovery and crisis management. Care should be equitable and accessible at all points on this continuum. Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that there is not a one-size-fits all solution.

The COVID-19 pandemic turned life as we knew it on its head. From that uncertainty, came a flurry of inventive ideas to help society continue to function. Major challenges persisted at every turn, but determination and unconventional thinking prevailed.

For the healthcare industry, it was a lesson in how collaboration can be effective, efficient and rapid with vaccines being brought to the market in record time. We should be encouraged to take this learning moment and replicate that same spirit of collaboration to better understand how we can more effectively and wholistically support patients. It will undoubtedly require immense observation, patience and humility, but when the patient remains at the center of all it all, guiding the way, progress is inevitable.

Recognizing that each patient experiences a journey fraught with unique limitations can provide valuable insight into how, as a society, we can work together towards more equitable access to mental health care.

Shaping intentional questions and creating space for empathetic inquiry that encourages patients to openly share their diverse experiences during visits or check-ins is a step towards helping them to defy the limitations they may face. This ultimately will create a better pathway to getting the care they need and deserve.

Content sponsored by Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc.

1 Psychiatry.org – Mental Health Disparities: Diverse Populations