Now that pandemic restrictions have eased and more data is coming in, we can take a more objective look at how COVID-19 affected our community. And it is increasingly evident that the pandemic exacerbated the need for behavioral health services at the same time that individuals with existing alcohol, drug, and mental health disorders faced decreased access to care.
Even before the COVID public health emergency, demand for behavioral health services was on the rise. In 2019, an estimated 21% of the U.S. adult population (52 million adults) reported having mental, behavioral, or emotional disorders. Another 20 million people aged 12 or older said they had substance use disorders. In fact, one of every four patients admitted to a general hospital is diagnosed with a behavioral health disorder.
During the pandemic, those problems did not go away. In fact, they got worse due to pandemic isolation, job loss, and economic recession. During the lockdown, 25% of people worldwide reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from one in ten adults who reported these symptoms in 2019. In one study, 60% of participants reported increased drinking during the pandemic. In another study, one in five respondents reported heavy drinking. In addition, The American Journal of Emergency Medicine said that domestic violence cases increased by 25-33% during the pandemic.
Despite an increase in behavioral health problems, outpatient behavioral health visits declined heavily during the pandemic, falling by as much as 75% for consumers with commercial insurance, 56% for Medicare beneficiaries and 25% for Medicaid beneficiaries. People with alcohol, drug, and mental health problems simply could not access the treatment they needed. Research studies report an increase in poor mental health and well-being for children and their parents during the pandemic, particularly those experiencing challenges with school closures and lack of childcare. Women with children were more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder than men with children (49% vs. 40%).
The pandemic also disproportionately affected the health of our communities of color. Non-Hispanic Black adults (48%) and Latino adults (46%) were more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder than Non-Hispanic White adults (41%). The L.A. Times revealed that Black, Latino and Pacific Islander residents of L.A. County were twice as likely to have died of COVID-19 than white residents.
Amidst the bad news, there was some good. Restrictions on telehealth (healthcare accessed via Smartphones and computers) loosened. As a result, behavioral healthcare providers conducted 75% of visits via telehealth in May and June 2020. This form of treatment seems to be here to stay, providing increased access to services for people with access barriers for in-person behavioral healthcare.