75% of Americans feel health care system handles mental health worse than physical, poll finds

The Gallup and West Health survey found cost, access and stigma keep many people from receiving treatment for mental health issues.
A man receives therapy.
Posted at 8:11 PM, May 02, 2024

Most Americans feel there's a wide gap in how the nation's health care system treats mental and physical health issues, according to a new Gallup and West Health poll.

The survey found three-fourths of Americans believe their mental health issues are identified and treated worse than their physical, even as more than 80% of them believe mental health problems have increased in the past five years and 51% reported they'd experienced some type of mental condition in the past year.

Only 15% said their mental health issues were dealt with "about the same" as their physical issues, while only 4% said the former were treated "somewhat better," and just 1% said "much better," Gallup reports. And when Gallup asked respondents to grade the American health care system on mental health treatment, only 1% gave it an A, while 57% graded it D or F.

This disconnect between how U.S. adults consider the prevalence of mental health conditions versus how they're treated is alarming, particularly as multiple reports have found a strong connection between a person's mental health and their physical health.

For example, the CDC, which states mental and physical health as equally important, says depression increases the risk for long-lasting conditions like diabetes, heart disease and stroke. And having these chronic conditions can increase the risk of mental illness.

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A World Psychiatry study last year said the coexistence of physical and mental health issues is often given little attention in ordinary practice, particularly because psychiatry is typically separated from other branches of medicine. The study also noted some psychiatrists don't pay enough attention to their patients' physical health, while other health care professionals with negative attitudes toward mentally ill people can underestimate the gravity of physical complaints.

The Gallup poll discovered a similar story with how Americans believe society views their mental health issues. It found 70% of U.S. adults think the world has either a "very" or "somewhat" negative view of those with mental conditions.

The belief of a stigma is the highest among adults 65 and older at 75%, but the survey found they're the least likely to say shame or embarrassment would keep them from seeking treatment. However, other studies have found older adults are at a higher risk for mental health issues, but they're less likely to seek professional help, with cost being one reported barrier.

Gallup also found cost to be a top barrier in seeking mental health treatment along with access, with 52% noting affordability and 42% saying difficulty in finding a provider was deterring them from getting help. This report noted younger Americans were more likely to list cost as a factor than older adults.

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But the survey found despite the concerning view of how Americans feel their mental health is being addressed in the country, they don't believe the same for the results of some treatments. Psychological counseling or therapy was seen as "very effective" or "effective" for 53% of adults, with only 5% saying it's "not at all effective."

The Biden administration says getting the two sides of overall health to parity has been a priority since the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which called for health plans to cover mental and physical health care benefits at the same level. But the president has said too many Americans are still struggling to find and afford needed care, with less than half with mental health issues getting treatment in 2020.

Last year, President Biden announced new actions to try to remedy this such as making clear what health plans can do and not do when it comes to mental health benefits and making sure mental health benefits aren't more restrictive than physical benefits. When addressing Mental Health Awareness Month at the end of April, the president said his administration is still working on closing the loopholes.