Pandemic Drives Uptick in Need for Mental Health Services

Megan Brooks

October 20, 2021

In 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, about 1 in 5 (20.3%) US adults received mental health treatment, up slightly from 19.2% in 2019, new data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), show.

Compared with 2019, the pandemic year of 2020 also saw an uptick in adults receiving prescription medication for a mental health problem (from 15.8% to 16.5%) or counseling or therapy from a mental health professional (from 9.5% to 10.1%), the CDC says.

The percentage of adults who had received mental health treatment in the prior year decreased with age, from 20.9% among people aged 18-44 to 20.5% among those aged 45-64 to 18.7% among those aged 65 and older.

Women were more likely than men to have received any mental health treatment (25.6% vs 14.6%), according to an analysis of 2020 data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS),

This is consistent with their higher prevalence of common mental health conditions including anxiety and depression, and their greater willingness to seek out mental health care, Emily Terlizzi, MPH, and Tina Norris, PhD, with the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), note in their data brief published online today.   

Non-Hispanic White adults (24.4%) were more likely than non-Hispanic Black (15.3%), Hispanic (12.65) and non-Hispanic Asian (7.7%) adults to be treated with a mental health issue.

The percentage of adults treated for a mental health problem increased as their place of residence became more rural, from 19.3% for those living in large urban areas to 21.7% among those residing in nonmetropolitan areas.

Social and Emotional Support

Despite rising mental health care needs, more than 3 in 4 US adults (77.5%) indicated that they always or usually received the social and emotional support they needed during the pandemic period of July to December 2020, also based on NHIS data.

Social and emotional support is associated with well-being and a reduced risk of early death, NCHS researchers Peter Boersma, MPH, and Anjel Vahratian, PhD, MPH, note in their data brief.

However, social and emotional support varies by age and race/ethnicity.

Groups with lower levels of social and emotional support are Hispanic, non-Hispanic Black, and non-Hispanic Asian adults; adults neither married nor living with a partner; adults without another adult in the home; adults with less than a high school education; and adults with disability.

"While most adults always or usually had the emotional support they needed, 1 in 10 adults rarely or never received the social and emotional support they needed," the authors report.

As reported by Medscape Medical News, 2020 data from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) show social isolation in older adults is a major public health concern that contributes to heart disease, depression, and premature death.

The report urged healthcare systems to take urgent action to address social isolation and loneliness in older adults, and proposed a series of recommendations for addressing social isolation.

One recommendation was to improve awareness by including measures of social isolation and loneliness in health surveys, such as the NHIS, which began asking about perceived social and emotional support in July 2020.

National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief No. 419 and No. 420. Published online October 20, 2021.

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