Health & Fitness

One in five Californians say they need mental health care

InsuranceUCLABudgets and BudgetingDavid Grant

Almost 5 million California adults say they could use help with a mental or emotional problem, according to a survey released Wednesday by researchers at UCLA. About 1 million of them meet the criteria for "serious psychological distress."

However, only one in three people who perceive a need for mental health services or are in serious distress have seen a professional for treatment, the survey found.

The survey was conducted among more than 44,000 adults as part of the 2005 California Health Interview Survey, administered through the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. Since the survey was conducted, the recession probably has contributed to worsening mental health for even more people, said the lead author of the study, David Grant.

The survey showed that lack of health insurance coverage was a major reason why people didn't seek help -- a situation that may be rectified somewhat by state and national mental health parity laws now in effect that require insurers to cover mental health conditions similarly to they way they cover physical conditions. (The final phase of the federal law went into effect on July 1.) However, stigma continues to be a barrier to mental health services. The survey found that men, people 65 and older, Latinos and Asians were less likely to seek help because of the stigma associated with mental or emotional problems. But being poor is the biggest barrier to care.

According to the survey:

  • Women were nearly twice as likely as men to say they needed help because they felt sad, anxious or nervous (22.7% compared to 14.3%).
  • Adults under age 65 were twice as likely to perceive the need for help (20.2% compared to 9.2%).
  • The poorest adults were more than five times as likely to report symptoms of serious psychological distress compared to those living well above the federal poverty level.

"The findings also demonstrate a crucial need for continued efforts to expand mental-health services and to meet threats to such services caused by the ongoing state budget crisis in Sacramento; reduced state funding for local mental health programs and public insurance programs could be devastating to hundreds of thousands of Californians with mental health needs," the authors wrote.

Mental health services always seems to be a big target when it comes to trimming state and local budgets. Lawmakers can get away with it, of course, because the stigma surrounding mental illness prevents people from protesting such cuts. Given the number of people in pain, according to this survey, it may be time for Californians to overcome the perceived stigma and demand expanded public funding and insurance coverage of mental health care.

-- Shari Roan

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