New UnitedHealth study highlights disparities in mental health

Mental health conditions have been a major topic in the industry of late, and a new study from UnitedHealth highlights widening disparities for vulnerable populations.

The United Health Foundation, the company's philanthropic arm, each year releases America's Health Rankings, which dive into major healthcare trends across the country. The latest analysis of that data examines how different populations are experiencing the rising tide of mental health concerns.

For example, adults with disabilities were 3.5 times more likely to report frequent mental distress, and 3.5 times more likely to have had a major depressive episode in the last year.

"This data is highlighting the need to take a closer look," said Yusra Benhalim, M.D., senior national medical director at Optum Behavioral Health Solutions, in an interview. "I think we need to kind of lean in a little bit more and understand what the experience is like for individuals with disabilities."

Disparities for people with disabilities persisted in both adult and youth populations, according to the report. Young people with disabilities were 2.6 times more likely to experience adverse childhood events, such as divorce, death of a parent or guardian or witnessing physical violence.

In addition, adults with disabilities were 1.7 times more likely to use illicit drugs or have a substance abuse disorder. For youth with disabilities, the rate of illicit drug use was 2.4 times higher than young people without disabilities, according to the report.

The study also touches on a trend that has been raising alarm in the industry for some time. Young adults had the highest disparity ratio on a number of issues compared to those over age 65, according to the study. They had 6.4 times higher rates of suicidal thoughts and four times higher rates of experiencing the symptoms of a major depressive episode.

In addition, young adults were 3.2 times more likely to say they had a prior unmet mental health need.

Benhalim said that the results should push the industry to be thinking of ways to more effectively engage with this population to meet their unique needs. 

"It's continuously telling us that there are needs, and there are needs that are going unmet," she said. "And again, the data brings us back to, what can we do about it?"

Other findings in the study include that adults who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual experience suicidal thoughts at 4.9 times higher rates than heterosexual adults. This group is 3.9 times more likely to experience a major depressive episode in the past year and two times more likely to have a substance abuse disorder, according to the report.

Women were also 1.8 times more likely than men to have a depression diagnosis and reported 1.5 times higher rates of frequent mental distress compared to men.

Benhalim said that for healthcare to address these challenges, it's critical to "stay curious" and continue to probe the data.

"I think it's also important because not only will it really inform and influence the necessary action that we all need to continue to take together, but it will also help us identify where there are gaps in the data," she said.