UnitedHealth report: As mental health concerns rise, more providers are available to treat these needs

While mental health and substance abuse issues have only grown thanks to the pandemic, a bright spot may be forming: The number of providers available to treat these concerns is increasing, a new study shows.

The United Health Foundation, the philanthropic arm of insurance giant UnitedHealth Group, released its annual "America's Health Rankings" report and in the analysis found that between 2020 and 2021, the number of people who reported that their mental health was poor in 14 of the last 30 days increased by 11%.

In 2020, 13.2% reported frequent mental distress, and that rose to 14.7% in 2021, according to the report.

At the same time, drug-related deaths spiked. The report found that deaths increased by 20% nationwide between 2019 and 2020, reaching 27.9 deaths per 100,000. This the largest year-over-year increase in more than a decade, according to the report.

The report also found that disparities within drug deaths increased in tandem. Such deaths increased by 45% among multiracial populations and by 43% among Black populations. Drug-related deaths were highest among American Indian/Alaskan Native populations, occurring at a rate nine times higher than the lowest group, Asian patients.

However, the analysis found that the supply of mental health providers reached its highest levels since the report was first published in 2017. The number of mental health providers per 100,000 increased by 7% between 2021 and 2022 and has increased by 40% since the 2017 report.

There are now 305 mental health providers per 100,000, according to the report.

"The pandemic has impacted all of us in profound ways and at different times," said Rhonda Randall, M.D., executive vice president and chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual, in the press release. "We need to find ways to get those with substance abuse disorders the help they need. The increase we see in mental health providers is a promising sign, but we still have a long way to go."

Other findings in the report include:

  • A spike the in premature death rate. The number of lives lost before age 75 increased by 18% between 2019 and 2020. Like with drug-related deaths, disparities also widened for this figure.
  • Firearm-related deaths also increased. The rate of firearm deaths increased by 13% between 2019 and 2020.
  • The prevalence of multiple chronic conditions is on the rise. Between 2020 and 2021, the number of people who had three or more chronic conditions—including arthritis, asthma, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression and diabetes—increased by 5%. Many factors could have played a role, such as pandemic-driven care delays and greater risks for people who contracted COVID-19.
  • Gains in insurance rates may be at risk. The uninsured rate decreased to 7% between 2019 and 2021, the report found. However, many of those people gained coverage thanks to flexibilities granted due to the pandemic, so there is a major chance that those gains could be reversed.
  • Internet access is improving as telehealth use grows. The analysis found that high-speed internet access rose between 2019 and 2021 across all racial and ethnic groups.

Georges C. Benjamin, M.D., executive director of the American Public Health Association, said reports like this will become critical as the country grapples with public health crises in a post-COVID world.

"It’s clear that we as a nation have a health debt to pay—one that has accumulated over years," Benjamin said. "For too long, we have underinvested in our public health infrastructure and in the health of underserved communities of color where rates of chronic conditions and other health challenges are highest."

"We paid this debt during the pandemic, losing a million people, and we will continue to pay it over the coming years as we work to address the underlying racial and ethnic and other inequities that COVID-19 highlighted and exacerbated," he said.