You may have heard of or personally experienced what is known in Massachusetts and across the country as the “behavioural health crisis.” The pandemic has significantly increased feelings of grief, isolation, mental stress, drug and alcohol use, burnout and financial worries for many of us. And while it has always been difficult to get behavioral health services when needed, the pandemic has made it even more difficult.
The term behavioral health refers to both mental illness and substance use conditions. Very often they occur together, for example when a mental illness such as depression or anxiety leads to problematic alcohol or drug use. In other cases, a person has one or the other.
We’ve made some progress in increasing access to behavioral health care in Massachusetts—but with the increasing need for behavioral health care across the Commonwealth, we need to do more.
This is not a new problem. A survey conducted in early 2018 by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation found that nearly a quarter (23%) of adults ages 19 to 64 in Massachusetts reported having used behavioral health care for themselves or a child in the past 12 months family member to have taken advantage of. People of color and those on low incomes had even greater care needs. More than half of those who sought care said they had difficulty obtaining it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an outsized impact on mental health. Consider these statistics from a survey of Massachusetts residents in late 2020 and early 2021:
28% said they used alcohol or cannabis more frequently after the pandemic began; 17% said their drug use caused serious problems at home, work or school; 64% who reported a behavioral health need said it was because of the pandemic.
Finding behavioral health care was often a challenge even before the pandemic put more pressure on the system. If you have insurance, you need to find a provider that will take care of your specific type of insurance. The study mentioned above also found that more than a third of adults seeking care were told by a provider that they did not accept the person’s type of insurance. Some providers don’t buy any insurance at all and only see patients paying directly out of pocket. Finding affordable treatment can be a barrier for many.
Even if cost or insurance aren’t barriers, you still need to find the right provider, available in the right place at the right time. For specific mental illnesses, or for those who suffer from both mental illness and drug use, you want a provider who specializes in the type of treatment you need. Seeing a therapist in person requires making time and arrangements to get to and from an appointment, which can be difficult for someone working professionally or at home with young children. Where you live in the state, what language you speak, and your age can all be factors that make it harder to find a provider that fits your needs.
With each of these challenges, finding help can be overwhelming. While the pandemic has had a devastating impact on our emotional and physical health, it has resulted in a significant advance that has removed a number of barriers: the increased use of telemedicine, seeing a medical or behavioral health provider by phone or video platform. Telemedicine has made mental health and drug use treatment more accessible and will likely remain for those patients who prefer virtual visits.
If you are looking for behavioral health services, it may be helpful to start with your GP, who knows you and your medical history and may be able to make a direct referral. If you know what type of provider you are looking for and you have either private health insurance or public health insurance (MassHealth), you can also use their website first or contact them for a list of providers who serve patients with this take out certain insurance.
A new resource available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year is the Massachusetts Behavioral Health Helpline at 833-773-2445, which Massachusetts residents can call or text to find local resources. Regardless of the insurance you have, or even if you don’t have insurance at all, there are now community behavioral health centers across the state that will see you and assess your needs. In the event of urgent problems such as emotional crises or suicidal thoughts, anyone can quickly reach a call center with specially trained employees by dialing “988”. This suicide and crisis lifeline was established statewide and last summer in Massachusetts.
People interested in learning more about the behavioral health services and systems in our state can visit the Network of Care Massachusetts, a helpful and organized online directory of programs and organizations across the state. It is important for any person in crisis to know that they are not alone and that help is available.
Audrey Shelto is President and CEO of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, a private, not-for-profit organization dedicated to ensuring equal access to health care for all people in the Commonwealth who are economically, racially, culturally or socially excluded.