Understanding the Barriers to Mental Health Awareness and Treatment

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A person leaning against a window frame, considering the barriers to mental health awareness and treatment.

In Part 2 of this series, we explore the barriers to mental health awareness and treatment. In addition to stigma, the awareness and treatment of mental health face challenges in the form of rising medical costs, access to proper care and continued efforts to seek legitimacy, to name a few.

During the development of this series, our world has undergone a crisis the likes of which has not been experienced in over 100 years. As we continue to move through the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health concerns will become even more prevalent and dire than before it began.

As you noticed in Part 1, I am drawn to imagery and metaphor. We imagined mental health as floating balloons, invisibly attached to who we are, with only some of its characteristics visible to those around us. As we discuss mental health treatment awareness, access and stigma, let’s shift our imagery a bit.

Many of you might remember having a toy often referred to as a “bead maze.” The bead maze consisted of several colorful wires attached to a board or base with beads that you moved through complex patterns. Although I can’t recall having one of my own, I remember playing with them in doctors’ offices and have seen them still in my children’s pediatrician’s office. It was fun to snake the bead through the loops that crossed each other, moving up and down and side to side to bring the bead successfully from one side to the other. In this article, we explore mental health treatment, and the many facets associated with it, with each of those brightly colored wire tracks representing the areas of mental health treatment we need to consider. Our puzzle has two primary tracks, the Blue Track and the Red Track.

The Blue Track – Mental Health Treatment

Blue has a reputation as being associated with intelligence, truth, depth and stability. This color is often associated with medicine and healthcare because it is representative of credibility, calm and focus. It only makes sense, then, to designate the blue track to mental health treatment. Treatment for mental health conditions has been around for quite some time, and there are several venues that provide mental health services. Still, access can be problematic depending on where you live, what you can afford, and what your insurance provider, if you have access to healthcare, deems appropriate.

Ongoing advocacy is needed to increase access to mental health services, either by engaging the systems we have in place to improve or creating a new way to access treatment altogether.

As you think about moving the bead on your Blue Track through the loops and dips, you might find yourself stuck. This may be because the bead on the Red Track needs to move as well to complete the puzzle, right alongside or perhaps even ahead of the Blue Track.

The Red Track – Fighting Mental Health Stigma

The color red has historically commutated a great many things. In this context, the red track is meant to communicate determination, passion and the fight we see as necessary to remove the barriers associated with mental health stigma. The challenges associated with mental health treatment do not lie solely in access and means. Those are much more practical and tangible problems. This does not mean they are not huge concerns, but there are practical means to come by a solution. The perceptions regarding mental health treatment, specifically the stigma, bias and views around legitimacy prove to be much more complex in nature. For years, the benefits and outcomes of mental health treatment have shown legitimacy even beyond some of the most popular medications behind the pharmacist’s counter, but still the bias exists. So how do you change the mindset of society?

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, advocates that to fight mental health stigma, we must work toward several goals. The first surrounds how we communicate about mental illness. We need to be able to talk openly about mental health, educate ourselves on it, share our experiences about our treatment, and be conscious about the language we use. The second set of goals requires a more direct and confrontational approach. To overcome mental health stigma, we need to push back at media that stigmatize mental health, choose empowerment over shame, use our representative power to change public policy, and encourage equality between physical and mental illness.

The Yellow, Orange, Green, Purple …

Part of what made the bead maze so intriguing to play with was its innate and truly visual complexity. The shape of the tracks related to mental health is complex to be sure, but they are not the only pieces to this particular puzzle. Swirling around these tracks are others that intertwine and weave through the mayhem, some creating hope and others creating barriers. Consider the impact that politics, regional attitudes, economic status, privilege, discrimination, non-profits, charities, volunteers, schools and others have on mental health treatment. There are so many permutations of tracks with positive and negative impacts that it could be seen as daunting as much as anything else. Our strategy may need to be one of simplicity. If we move the red and blue beads to their final destination, a place where getting treatment is encouraged and available to those who need it, we may see a better way to navigate the rest together.

Dr. Eric J. Perry, NCC, ACS, is a clinical faculty member in Southern New Hampshire University's master’s in clinical mental health counseling program. Dr. Perry is a Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC) and Approved Clinical Supervisor (ACS), with experience in community counseling and K-12 treatment settings.

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