Most Americans experience a mental health issue, but few talk to their primary care physician

doctor and patient
Many patients experience mental health issues but few talk to their primary care doctor.

While most Americans said they have at least one mental health issue that affects their well-being, few ever talk to their primary care physician about their concerns.

A new survey that coincides with mental health month found that 69% of Americans said they have a mental health issue, almost a third are embarrassed to talk about mental health even with a medical professional and only 35% have ever talked to their primary care provider (PCP), according to One Medical, a national primary care practice.

That’s unfortunate, since primary care is one of the most affordable and accessible ways for people to start a dialogue about their mental health worries and receive treatment either from their doctor or through a referral.

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“Quality primary care is about the partnership between the patient and provider,” Kristen Nelson, a nurse practitioner at One Medical, said in a blog post about the survey.

Compounding the issue: Many physicians are reluctant to ask patients about their mental health because they lack resources to help those patients. That's why Carolinas HealthCare System set up a program to integrate behavioral health services into primary care offices using telehealth.

RELATED: ACHE 2017: Carolinas Health integrates behavioral health, primary care to improve diagnosis, treatment

“We know integration of behavioral health services into primary care works,” Martha J. Whitecotton, R.N., senior vice president of behavioral health, said in a presentation at the American College of Healthcare Executives’ 2017 Congress in Chicago earlier this year.

Training primary care physicians to handle behavioral health issues is important given the shortage of psychiatrists and mental health services, which has created a crisis in the U.S. that sends many patients to the emergency room as a last resort.

RELATED: U.S. desperately needs psychiatrists, mental health services

Two-thirds of primary care physicians report having trouble getting psychiatric services for patients, as it can take three to six months to get an appointment for a patient with a psychiatrist.

“Strong relationships help PCPs get to know their patients in a way that can make diagnosing and treating mental health concerns even more effective, especially when they have open, ongoing lines of communication,” Nelson said. 

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