Why Is It So Hard for Young Adults to Find Mental-Health Help?

More are seeking help, but cost and difficulty finding a therapist continue to be big barriers.
For many young adults, college-age and beyond, this may be the first time they're confronting a mental-health issue, so they may not seek help and instead focus inward, cautions one mental health expert. (Chris Schmidt/Getty Images)
Mar 13, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Fran Kritz is a freelance writer specializing in health and health policy and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

According to a recent story by Kaiser Health News, 92 percent of campus counseling centers surveyed said the number of students seeking counseling has gone up in the past few years. That’s partly because more students are aware of the signs of stress and there’s been more on-campus advertising by the counseling centers. So while it’s good more students are seeking help when they need it, many of the colleges questioned claimed they often don’t have enough staff to handle demand—so students may end up on waiting lists.

Even after the undergraduate years, mental-health professionals say it can be difficult—and perhaps more difficult—for graduate students and young professionals with mental-health concerns to get the help they need. At Northwestern University, where Maddie Edinger, now 25, went to college, students were limited to 12 free sessions for the full four years as an undergraduate, though she was able to get additional help through the women’s center on campus. Now working in public relations in New York City, Edinger struggled for a long time to find good mental-health care. “I tried to find a psychologist/psychiatrist once I began working,” she says, “but there’s not really a place to find recommendations for good ones.”

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She even turned to platforms she’d use to find other services, like a good restaurant or a gym. “People don’t really Yelp about the doctor they are seeing for their depression and no one really talks about mental-health issues,” she notes. Unable to find a doctor she could afford, she opted to keep taking her old psychiatric prescription, but experienced bad side effects. Having eventually worked her way through multiple doctors, at an out-of-pocket cost of thousands of dollars she couldn’t really afford, Edinger has finally found a team she likes a lot, a social worker and psychiatrist who both take her insurance.

The barriers Edinger came up against aren’t unusual for those her age. “Obstacles to mental-health care [for young adults] include a lack of insurance or sufficient coverage to pay for some or any mental-health benefits, and finding a mental-health specialist can be daunting,” says Shara Sand, Psy.D., a past president of the social issues division of the New York State Psychological Association.

Sand says that even for those who have insurance, looking at a list of names they don’t know is often overwhelming and that many young people understandably give up after finding that a doctor doesn’t take their insurance or when they’re placed on a long waiting list for an appointment. “Establishing a relationship with someone they can comfortably speak with is nothing like seeing a medical doctor once or twice a year,” says Sand.

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Flynn O'Malley, Ph.D., director of the Compass Program for young adults at The Menninger Clinic, in Houston, Texas, which specializes in mental-health issues, says a critical obstacle to care for young adults, college-age and beyond, is that this may be the first time they’re confronting a mental-health issue, so they may not seek help and instead focus inward. “Reaching out to parents, friends, or anyone else you feel will be a compassionate listener can help a young adult sort out what they may need help with and then seek the care they’re after,” says O’Malley.

A few recent changes seem to be improving barriers to access: Young adults can now stay on their parents’ health insurance plans until age 26, which increases the chance they’ll be able to afford mental-health treatment. And the mental-health parity act, passed as part of the Affordable Care Act, requires that a group health insurance plan’s annual or lifetime dollar limits on mental-health benefits be no less than limits for medical and surgical benefits.

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It also helps that many communities have excellent low-cost and/or sliding scale treatment facilities. You can find them by doing a search or by calling 211 or 311, the number for non-emergency resources in most cities. Elsa Lasky, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City, adds that both undergraduate and graduate school students often have access to off-campus mental-health treatment options in addition to those on campus, and can ask at their student health center about all their options.

Have you had trouble finding or affording a mental-health professional when you needed one?