Data Shows Minimal Change in Americans' Use of Mental Health Services

woman on a video call with her physician

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Key Takeaways

  • In 2020, 20.3% of adults in the US received mental health treatment.
  • 16.5% of adults in the US had taken prescription medication for mental health in 2020.
  • In the US, in 2020, 10.1% of adults had accessed mental health counseling services.

The pandemic has had a substantial impact on mental health in the US. An October 2021 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report found that there was only a 1.1% rise in mental health treatment in 2020.

Based on the 2020 National Health Interview Survey, the CDC indicated that 16.5% of respondents had made use of prescription medication for mental health, while 10.1% engaged with a therapist for counseling services.

Despite the progress made in expanding the dialogue around mental health issues, it's clear there's still much work to be done. And while mental health treatment can extend beyond prescription medication and therapy, there are still barriers to accessing care based on oppression, stigma, and financial limitations.

The CDC Report

The National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) was completed by telephone interview with adults across the US in 2020 and found that there was only a 1.1% increase in the mental health treatment of participants from 2019.

The NHIS indicated that 16.5% of US adults had taken prescription medication for mental health, while 10.1% of participants had accessed mental health counseling. The percentage of adults who had utilized medication for their mental health increased with age, while the percentage who had engaged in counseling services decreased with age.

Researchers found that women were more likely than men to have received any mental health treatment, but a limitation of this survey is its reliance on binary gender, especially given how trans and gender-nonconforming individuals often face challenges accessing healthcare in the US.

Mental health treatment was higher among whites compared with BIPOC participants, and adults in a rural setting, as opposed to an urban area.

Stigma May Create Barriers

Behavioral health medical director at Community Health of South Florida Inc., psychiatrist Howard Pratt, DO, says, “The takeaway from this report is that the stigma associated with seeking mental health care has continued through the crisis of the pandemic.”

Dr. Pratt explains that people are often reluctant to seek mental health care even when they need it because of the stigma associated with such care. “What is needed are more mental health resources and greater acceptance that mental health is a critical part of your overall health," he says.

Since the pandemic magnified issues that were already present, Dr. Pratt notes the lack of adequate mental health resources and a societal failure to fully acknowledge the importance of mental health may persist.

Dr. Pratt explains, "At the beginning of the pandemic people already had stressors to deal with and when the pandemic struck more were added. When we sense that stressors are affecting us, often we don’t know exactly what it is that is bothering us, but we know something is wrong."

Howard Pratt, DO

The stigma associated with seeking mental health care can really guide a person away from getting help when they actually will benefit from it.

— Howard Pratt, DO

If those individuals do not reach out for help, Dr. Pratt notes that what started out as a smaller issue can become far more serious without mental health treatment. "The longer you wait to address what might be wrong the greater likelihood that things will get much worse,” he says.

Dr. Pratt highlights that although people are often resistant to reaching out for mental health resources, that does not mean that they do not actually require those services to address their overall health and wellness.

In terms of his work at Community Health of South Florida, Inc., Dr. Pratt saw a surge of patients in need of mental health care during the pandemic, but that may not have been the case in all areas across the nation.

Dr. Pratt notes that many patients he treated were apprehensive to walk into a psychiatrist’s office, but they came to the realization that it was necessary. "The stigma associated with seeking mental health care can really guide a person away from getting help when they actually will benefit from it," he says.

Promoting Greater Acceptance

Licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center, Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, says, "I see the takeaway message as one of supporting understanding of mental health by promoting broad acceptance."

Mendez explains that denying, avoiding, or dismissing mental health needs perpetuates negative stigma instead of breaking down the negativity and shame that has traditionally been associated with mental health needs.

While there have been focused efforts to increase awareness and promote acceptance over the last decade, Mendez says, "It is imperative that mental health awareness efforts continue, and that work move towards increasing mental health service options and accessibility for everyone."

Mendez notes that the general population holds power in getting mental health accessibility to be promoted in the way that is necessary. "There is still overwhelming resistance to acknowledging mental health needs and greater resistance to participating in mental treatment," she says.

Although much of the resistance may be informed by the limited service options and availability, Mendez highlights that the greater part of the resistance is the continued negative stigmatization of mental health needs.

Mendez explains that the public needs to understand the mental health treatments that exist and how to connect with services when needed, as many of these options are typically not advertised, but need exposure for people to know that they can access help and where to go in the community.

Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT

Mental health challenges are universal, experienced by people of all ages, gender identities, ethnicities, socio-economic positions, cognitive levels, and religious affiliations.

— Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT

For example, Mendez notes, "There is insurance reimbursement, government-funded specialty mental health programs such as Crime Victims Compensation Programs, Clinical Trials Programs that provide assessment and treatment for mental health while supporting research, and Medicaid and state or county-sponsored funds for mental health programs."

Mendez explains, "The media plays a significant role in communicating acceptance of mental health issues but much of what is seen in the media are the crimes, disadvantages, and horror stories related to mental illness."

Mendez notes that research from the CDC, NIH, etc. shows a disparity between the number of people that have mental health diagnoses and the number of people who actually participate in treatment. "Research consistently shows that less than 50% of people with diagnosed mental health conditions receive treatment," she says.

Seeking mental health treatment can be challenging, but Mendez highlights, "The process of engaging in a therapeutic relationship with a trained, experienced therapist opens opportunities for discovery and recovery for individuals to learn skills that enrich their lives in ways that were not accessible to them on their own."

Mendez reiterates, "Mental health challenges are universal, experienced by people of all ages, gender identities, ethnicities, socio-economic positions, cognitive levels, and religious affiliations. In my experience, individuals who seek help and apply learned strategies are more likely to experience productive and satisfying lives."

Resources for Mental Health Care

Given that the recently published CDC report demonstrated less mental health treatment among BIPOC adults than white participants, individuals may benefit from connecting with the following resources:

What This Means For You

This research reflects data from 2020, so engagement in mental health treatment may have changed over the course of 2021. These statistics also do not account for therapeutic efforts people have made outside of engaging in mental health therapy or utilizing psychiatric medication, such as spending time outdoors, creative pursuits, etc.

If you or someone that you love could benefit from exploring mental health treatment possibilities, Mendez recommends, "The 211 public service phone number is available to anyone who seeks mental health referral options. Two-one-one is a free, easily accessible service that provides callers with resources for treatment options."

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NCHS: Mental health treatment among adults: United States, 2020.

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Statistics.

Additional Reading

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.