Impact of Delayed Mental Health Treatment

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By Catherine Wachira, PMHNP

Major depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the U.S. An estimated 21
million adults in the US have experienced at least one major depressive episode (National
Institute of Mental Health [NIMH], 2020). Only about half of people affected by depression seek
treatment with psychotherapy, medication, or combine medication and therapy. The others seek
treatment much later in the downward spiral of depression or not at all. Untreated or delayed
mental illness can lead to much more serious psychiatric illness and even hospitalization and/or
death.

Some of the barriers toward getting treatment include family beliefs, mental health literacy,
autonomy, access to care, and most commonly, the stigma that revolves around mental health
illness (Velasco et al., 2020). Some may feel ashamed or embarrassed when they are diagnosed
with mental illness while others feel as if they will bring disgrace to their families. Some may
even fear being rejected by their spouses, friends, or society in general when they are not only
diagnosed but also receiving treatment for mental health. In 2020, 66% of adults with major
depression disorder received treatment, and only 41.6% of adolescents received treatment
(NIMH, 2020).

What is the impact of untreated mental health disorders? Untreated mental health can
significantly affect the development of children and young adults. What begins as something
seemingly insignificant can morph into something much bigger than one can handle alone. Some
of the most common reasons for seeking mental health treatment among adolescents include

suicidal ideation, self-harm, depressive symptoms, and concerns regarding general mental health
(Velasco et al., 2020). Sadly, by the time a person has thoughts of self-harm, they have been
experiencing untreated mental health for a while. Moreover, by the time treatment is initiated,
hospitalization may be required. Delayed treatment translates to a higher cost of care, more days
lost at work or at school, and disrupted relationships with parents and peers. In short, the longer a
person waits, the more severe illness becomes, and the more difficult it might be to treat.

It’s extremely important to remember that our brain is an important part of our body, and at
times, it may not work as well as it is supposed to. The brain is an organ that requires
maintenance and treatment like all the other organs in our bodies. For example, with juvenile
diabetes, the pancreas produces very little to no insulin, which requires strict monitoring of blood
glucose levels and insulin injections. If patients seek prompt treatment for juvenile diabetes, why
should a depressed person fail to seek timely treatment? Mental health illness should be
normalized, and we should always remember that it is okay not to be okay. A person with mental
illness should feel empowered to reach out, get the opinion of a professional, and receive
treatment. Let’s normalize mental health and be supportive of those in need of mental health
care.

Resources:

Velasco, A., Cruz, I.S.S., Billings, J., Jimenez M., & Rowe, S. (2020). What are the barriers,
facilitators and interventions targeting help-seeking behaviors for common mental health
problems in adolescents? A systematic review. BMC Psychiatry 20, 293
https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-020-02659-0

National Institute of Mental Health. (2020). Mental Health Information.
https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness