The Overwhelming Cost of Seeking Mental Health Help in America

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  • Millions of Americans suffer from mental illness, culminating in billions of dollars of lost productivity annually.
  • Annual costs for a patient's treatment can be in the tens of thousands of dollars.
  • Traditional cost sharing arrangements, like health insurance, aren't always up to snuff.

Over 1 in 4 American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder.

Mental health disorders: they're more common than you think. For the tens of millions of Americans suffering from mental illness, seeking treatment can be difficult for multiple reasons, including financial. Learn more about the costs of mental illness and the price to treat it by reading on.

You're not alone

The fight against mental illness can be a lonely one. However, with tens of millions of Americans suffering from behavioral, mental, or emotional disorders, those facing mental illness are far from alone.

Understanding the prevalence of mental health disorders is paramount to recognizing their systemic effects. A 2020 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that an estimated 52.9 million Americans exhibit symptoms of at least one mental health disorder. Further, an estimated 14.2 million Americans suffer from mental health disorders that substantially interfere with major life activities. In percentages, over 5% of Americans face mental health afflictions that severely impact their lives.

The legacy of poor mental health affects not only those with mental health disorders. According to a report from Tufts Medical Center, the effects of mental health conditions in the workforce can include both absenteeism (missing work) and presenteeism (working while showing symptoms), both of which impair work performance. The report found that an estimated $44 billion is lost in annual worker productivity due to depression alone. The blight of poor mental health in this country has far-reaching implications for neuro-typical people as well.

Treatment can be costly

In addition to the mental burdens placed on Americans suffering from mental health disorders, financial hurdles can make seeking treatment difficult or impossible. Mental health treatment frequently entails a multifaceted approach, such as therapy coupled with psychiatry and prescription drugs. The cost of one or all of these treatment options in tandem can be prohibitively expensive.

Many Americans with one or more mental health disorders will begin their treatment journey with therapy. In 2021, the average cost per therapy session was around $150. After a series of therapy appointments, a patient may be referred to a psychiatrist, costing upwards of $250 for a one-hour session. Following an evaluation visit, the patient may then begin taking a combination of drugs to combat their mental health disorder(s). While some drugs are inexpensive, many drugs, especially new drugs, can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a month's prescription.

The upfront costs alone can dissuade an American with a mental health disorder from seeking treatment. Consider also that the process described above is almost never a linear one. Because mental health treatment is frequently a trial-and-error approach, a patient will likely pay the above costs for months or years as they seek treatment. It comes as no wonder that the average patient with major depression spends nearly $11,000 on health costs annually related to their mental health disorder.

Insurance isn't always helpful

When it comes to paying for mental health treatment, health insurance has come a long way toward sharing the cost with patients. Thanks to the 1996 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, insurers cannot treat mental health benefits differently than physical health benefits in terms of benefit limitations. However, Americans with mental health disorders may still find their cost-sharing arrangements leave much to be desired.

A survey by JAMA Psychiatry found that only about 55% of psychiatrists accept insurance, well below the average of 89% for all healthcare professionals. Those who seek mental health services, especially in rural America, may be forced to go out of network to reach the professionals they need. Many insurers will pay little if anything for out-of-network care, and often don't have a deductible for such care. Additionally, based on your insurer, you may have to pay full price for prescriptions, especially on early-to-market drugs which can cost thousands of dollars per refill.

Faced by the enormous costs of seeking help, many Americans go without treatment for their mental health disorders. Less than half of all Americans exhibiting mental health disorders receive treatment. Mental health disorders are a problem facing millions of Americans, and these illnesses also affect society at large. The costs of seeking care are just another burden on those suffering from mental illness and can make treatment prohibitively expensive.

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