In the modern world, there are a number of different health professionals that specialize in mental health services. While this wide variety may be accommodating in a certain sense, a sizeable portion of people report that the various selections can be overwhelming and confusing. Certain professionals focus on specific aspects of mental treatment and each also has a varying level of education and certification. These positions include:
- Social workers
- Licensed professional counselors (including marriage family therapists)
- Peer specialists
Furthermore, while all of these experts are required to be properly licensed, the criteria for obtaining one also differs by state. In short, when choosing someone to seek treatment from, an individual needs to make a long and careful decision.
Additional complications also arise through the overall health care system. When most people notice or seek help for an unidentified mental health issue, they typically wish to remedy the observable, bodily symptoms. Due to this common desire, most schedule a visit to their primary care doctor first. Even if a patient’s goal is to seek a referral to more specialized professionals, primary care physicians, assistants or nurse practitioners can also prescribe medication, depending on the state and may do so. While this may seem like a more direct form of treatment, the process becomes problematic when clinical expertise is compromised between doctors and mental health professionals. An accumulating pool of evidence shows that a real gap does exist and improvements in the health care system should be pursued.
Understanding the gap
The main disconnect between a primary care physician and a mental health specialist comes down to the most basic fact: medical doctors are trained to treat a broad list of biological conditions and mental health professionals exclusively focus on psychological conditions. Since many mental disorders can have substantial effects on a person’s overall health, both sides can claim authority when it comes to treatment. Sadly, since mental health professionals usually interview their clients more deeply and extensively over time, general practice doctors can commonly miss other symptoms that contribute to an accurate diagnosis, especially during a single visit.
Current U.S. statistics show that about 7.9 million adults suffer from a severe mental illness every year, while approximately 3.9 million adults report that their mental illness is untreated. Multiple variables have been cited as causes for this unfortunate trend, with one being the lack of needed communication between primary care and specialized services. Conversely, another line of criticism has also blamed this gap for the exceedingly high rate of prescribed medication for many conditions that do not meet the full requirements of a serious disorder. About one-third of all mental health treatment in the United States is administered by medical practitioners rather than mental health specialists.
Why the disconnect causes problems
In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers documented clinicians’ theoretical leanings and concluded that personal judgment can absolutely influence the diagnosis of a mental disorder. This can be especially troubling in the instance of disorders that exhibit similar symptoms, like depression and anxiety.
While doctors do have an extensive list of patients to see with only a set amount of time for each, a considerable number of hospital and clinic visitors prefer to receive medication directly instead of going through the extended time and hassle of seeing a mental health professional. As a result of this and the rising development of mental health problems, many of those providing primary care are also spending an estimated 70 percent of their time managing mental health care services. According to practicing physician, Dr. Suzanne Koven, “One reason is that there aren’t enough psychiatrists… Demand by patients for mental health care has increased such that if primary care doctors didn’t offer it, many people would go without it.” (The New Yorker, 2013)
Although this is undoubtedly a complicated, interdisciplinary issue, the most pressing factor is that the disconnection exists and needs to be resolved. An individual’s level of quality care is severely dependent on the ability of treatment providers to partner and coordinate their services and information that may be useful to one another.
Various treatment centers and facilities are available to serve these groups of underserved and overlooked populations in need of better mental health services. To learn more about the services provided in your area, please contact California Dual Diagnosis Helpline online or call 855-980-1736.