This is an update of our nation’s mental health crisis from my perspective. I define the crisis and look at at its causes and impact on the American people. In addition, I explore the perspectives of this crisis in the American healthcare system, the American workplace, and the American employer. Following this update I will propose my solution to the American mental health crisis.
Mental Health in the American Healthcare System
This is the worst of times for people with mental health problems in the American healthcare system. One in four (58 million) American adults suffers from a diagnosable mental health problem, preventing a normal and productive life. (1)
In general, people with undiagnosed and untreated mental health problems use the healthcare system more often than people of the same age group who are unaffected. The services most often used in the healthcare system include Emergency Room visits, non-psychiatric hospitalizations, and primary care visits. (2)
For American adults with any form of chronic medical condition, the likelihood of also having a diagnosable mental health problem is higher than for adults in the same age group who do not have chronic medical conditions. Furthermore, those people with both a chronic medical condition and a mental health problem who have their mental health problem diagnosed and properly treated will show more improvement in their chronic medical conditions than those who do not receive treatment for their mental health problems. (3) Between 70% and 90% of those with mental health problems experience a significant reduction of their symptoms and an improved quality of life with a combination of medications, talk therapy, and other support mechanisms. (4)
So why is it the worst of times in the American healthcare system for people with mental health problems? In spite of using the healthcare system more often, less than one in three of the 58 million American adults with mental health problems have their problem diagnosed and one in ten receives the treatment they need to get well and lead a normal, productive, and fulfilling life. (5)
Why does our healthcare system, which has highly effective remedies for mental health disorders, fail to recognize them most of the time? The explanation leads to the solution to the American mental health crisis.
To begin, take a full minute look at this optical illusion. When you first look at this picture, you may see either a young woman or an old hag. But the longer you look at it, eventually the one that you did not see initially will appear. This demonstrates the limits of our human senses. We may not see, hear, smell, or feel what we are not looking for, even when it is right in front of us. Similarly, our healthcare system fails to recognize mental health disorders in most cases. While all health problems impact a person both structurally and functionally, our health care system tends to focus exclusively on the structural part of health problems.
For example, a 50-year-old man sees his doctor because he is feeling severe pain in his left lower abdomen. The doctor’s evaluation reveals that the man experiences discomfort, especially when the doctor gently pushes on his left lower abdomen. A CAT scan shows severe inflammation in the left side of his colon (a condition called diverticulitis). After 5 days in the hospital with nothing to eat or drink, and a regimen of intravenous fluids and antibiotics, the man recovers completely. This man’s inability to work or take part in family or community activities is an expected functional byproduct of his structural health problem (diverticulitis). Thus, information about this man’s functional status was not required to successfully diagnose and treat his medical problem.
Now let’s imagine that this same 50-year-old man sees his doctor for the same complaints. The doctor’s evaluation is the same as in the first scenario, except the CAT scan shows that all structures, including the colon, are perfectly normal. The physician tells this man that he likely has something called Irritable Bowel Syndrome (aka, functional bowel syndrome) and in spite of the man’s bowel being structurally normal, the doctor advises him to increase the fiber in his diet and prescribes a medication to cut the bowel spasm when the abdominal pain occurs. While these remedies may or may not help, one thing is certain: this man’s problem has not yet been identified or resolved. Therefore, he will suffer more and go back to his doctor or the emergency room.
Had this man’s physician looked at him just a little longer after his extensive and costly evaluation, much like we looked a little longer at the picture of the young woman and the old hag, he would have been able to do more for his patient than simply assure him what disorders he didn’t have. Had he looked at his patient from a functional perspective using a sophisticated diagnostic tool such as asking him, “How are you doing?” the doctor may have discovered that his patient had not been performing too well at work and had not engaged in family and community activities for the past six months. This information could have uncovered the primary diagnosis and lead to the proper course of treatment, reducing this patient’s suffering and prevented him from continuing to return to the healthcare system again and again. In this man’s case, his abdominal pain was a physical manifestation of an Anxiety Disorder and had this been recognized and treated appropriately, not only would his abdominal symptoms have subsided he would have been able to function a lot better at work and at home, as well.
When functional impairments, such as poor work performance or lack of participation in family or community activities, do not accompany an identifiable structural process, neither the person nor his physician necessarily recognizes this as a medical problem. Unfortunately, this is the exact scenario experienced by of one in three of all disabled adults on our planet all of whom have a diagnosable and treatable medical problem called mental illness.
Our healthcare system fails to recognize and treat our mental health because it is purely a structure driven system. Our system is more adept at telling us what structural health problems we do not have, than at actually identifying those health problems that most impact our ability to function fully. For instance, a person suffering from severe headaches may see a Neurologist and have a normal neurological examination and a normal MRI of his brain. The Neurologist will tell him that his headaches are not caused by a brain tumor or an aneurysm. While the reassurance may offer a temporary sigh of relief, it does not resolve the man’s health problem; the system fails.
I assure you that the next time any of us see our primary care physician or go to the emergency room, we will be looked at structurally, regardless of the reason for our visit. The nurse will measure our height, weight, blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and respiratory rate. Then, a physician will ask us to point to where our problem is. The doctor will look at, touch, listen, probe, and possibly scan the area in 3D. With almost equal certainty, neither the nurse nor the physician will ask us how we are doing at work or in school, or if we take part in activities with family or friends, or in our communities. Not looking for or seeing a person’s functionality or performance is the deficiency of our nation’s healthcare system that makes this the worst of times for Americans with any degree of mental health problems.
Mental Health in the American Workplace
For American employers and employees, with mental health problems, this is also the worst of times to deal with mental health problems. Employers’ indirect costs arising from their employees’ mental health problems–in the form of short- and long-term disability, absenteeism, and presenteeism–is four times greater than a company’s direct costs for employee healthcare. (5)
Why do these employees with mental health issues contribute more to healthcare costs? In a service-based economy such as ours, an employee’s productivity is most dependent on her cognitive abilities, such as deductive reasoning, task management, effective communication, and creativity. Health issues of all types will likely impact a service workers’ performance. Workers with mild or even “sub-threshold” mental health problems have measurable productivity problems early on, well before they experience more serious health effects. (5) And these employees tend to use the healthcare system more often than people of the same age group who do not experience mental health issues. In essence, American employers are paying for their employees’ mental health problems twice–once for the direct costs of frequent use of healthcare services, and again for the indirect costs for the diminished productivity of the affected employees.
Two facts emerge from employers’ data on the impact of mental health on the productivity of a workforce. First, based on the current numbers, it is clear that employers have not yet found a remedy for an extremely costly problem in both financial and human terms. Second, based upon the numbers, employers prove capable of measuring its workforces’ performance in a way that accurately identifies a health problem that eludes identification in the healthcare system; our healthcare system has proven remedies for the problem but fails to recognize it. When employers demand their money’s worth from a healthcare system for which they are paying, it will be the best of times.
For a detailed plan of how employers can get what they and their employees need and deserve from the healthcare system, contact me @ firstname.lastname@example.org
Mitchell R. Weisberg, MD, MP
Weisberg Medical Consulting
Weisberg Medical Consulting adds a clinical perspective to an Organizations Balanced Scorecard, aligning the health of their workforce with the health of their enterprise.