Lack of funding and understanding about mental illness is allowing it to flourish as a major but largely unrecognized health problem in Georgia and across the country, a new survey shows.
The national survey of 351 county mental health directors by Roper Starch Worldwide found that 41 percent saw a lack of services and 37 percent cited a lack of funding as major barriers for people seeking help. About half of respondents said the stigma attached to mental illness and the lack of public awareness were also major factors.
And in some ways, those barriers work to reinforce each other, said Dr. Stewart Shevitz, interim chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior at Medical College of Georgia.
"That stigma is perpetuated by some insurance coverage because they don't cover mental illness the way they cover other types of physical illness," Dr. Shevitz said. "It sort of sends that message that it is not legitimized as a legitimate illness. And obviously that makes it more expensive for people and cuts them off from resources."
A survey a few years ago found that although mental health previously made up only a small portion of insurance company expenses, it had dropped by 50 percent from its previous low level, said Gregg Graham, executive director of University Behavioral Health Link.
Despite being nearly always full, Charter Behavioral Health Systems is shutting its facility in Augusta, putting a burden on finding a placement for those patients. MCG's child and adolescent inpatient unit is picking up some of the slack, and University is preparing to open a 16-bed child and adolescent inpatient center later this year.
The National Mental Health Association of Georgia is calling on the state to put more money into community programs. A U.S. Surgeon General's report found that depression was the leading cause of disability in the country and that one in five suffer from some form of mental illness.
"It's right up there with other chronic health problems," Mr. Graham said. "That's one of the key things we've learned over the years is that community-based treatment for mental health problems is effective if we have the right supports and if patients are able to have access to the right medications."
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213.