The stress, disruption, isolation, and lives lost during the pandemic have exacerbated longstanding challenges in access to mental healthcare. In the graphic above, we highlight how COVID has impacted the state of mental health across generations.
Younger Americans are faring much worse. This week, the nation’s leading pediatric professional societies declared a national mental health emergency for children and adolescents, and nearly half of “Generation Z” reports that their mental health has worsened during COVID.
Mental health-related emergency department (ED) visits increased in 2020 across all age groups, with the steepest rise among adolescents. Because of a national shortage of inpatient psychiatric beds, patients with mental health needs are increasingly being “boarded” in the ED—even as nearly two-thirds of EDs lack psychiatric services to adequately manage patients in crisis.
Case in point: research on behavioral health access in Massachusetts shows one in every four ED beds is now occupied by a patient awaiting psychiatric evaluation. ED boarding of patients in mental health crisis not only delays necessary care, but leads to throughput backups in hospitals, and increases caregiver stress and burnout.
Access to inpatient treatment is most challenged for children and adolescents, as well as “med-psych” patients, who also have significant physical health needs that must be managed. New solutions have emerged during the pandemic: burgeoning telemedicine platforms don’t just increase access to outpatient therapy, they also enable psychiatrists to evaluate emergency patients virtually.
In the long term, a three-part approach is needed—new virtual solutions, expanded inpatient capacity, and greater community resources to address the social needs that often accompany a behavioral health diagnosis.