How Care Deserts Are Impacting the Mental Health Community — And What We Can Do About It

By Alexandra Hayes Robinson

Nearly 20% of adults in the United States experience a mental illness, according to a 2022 report from Mental Health America. That’s over 50 million Americans. It’s a stunning number, but thanks to advancements in research, increased public support and the tireless work of mental health care professionals, more and more people can find the support, healing and resilience required to thrive in everyday life.

Still, there’s a long way to go. The same report shows that approximately a third of Americans are unable to get the mental health care they need. While some of the problem can be attributed to stigma or cost, it also has to do with zip code.

What is a care desert?

A “care desert,” sometimes referred to as a “medical desert,” is an area where people have limited access to in-person health care, such as mental health treatment centers. There are pharmacy deserts, maternal care deserts, nursing home deserts — and these realities are evidence of a large-scale problem. Over 80% of the U.S. population lack adequate health care infrastructure, according to a 2021 report from GoodRx Research. This means that a third of the U.S. population have less than adequate access to essential forms of treatment.

Many care deserts are in rural areas, predominately in midwestern or southeastern regions of the country. This disparity is not due to a small sample size or a lack of need; one-fifth of the U.S. population live in a rural area, and about one-fifth of those living in rural areas, or 6.5 million individuals, have a mental illness, according to a 2020 report published in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Science.

What can we do about it?

While efforts are in the works to bring more treatment centers to care desert regions, there is another solution on the rise: virtual treatment and telebehavioral health care. “The widespread availability, feasibility and insurance coverage of virtual treatment enables access for many individuals who would not otherwise be able to receive care,” said Deborah M. Michel, PhD, CEDS-S, FAED, ERC Pathlight’s national clinical director of virtual care.

To better support these communities, Eating Recovery and Pathlight At Home offer virtual intensive outpatient programs for eating disorders and mood and anxiety disorders. The programs help patients build resilience and skills through group-based therapy in everyday life and are convenient options for many people considering higher levels of mental health care.

“Our research indicates that our At Home virtual care treatment for eating disorders, as well as mood and anxiety disorders, is at least as effective as in-person care,” said Dr. Michel. “We see significant reductions in eating disorder symptoms, depression and anxiety, indicating that effective care is available through a virtual format and can bridge the service gap for those residing in care deserts.”

Additional research backs up the efficacy of virtual care: A 2021 report published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that patients with eating disorders who switched to telehealth services at the start of the pandemic achieved large improvements in symptoms and mood, and the measures of their improvements were comparable to those of in-person treatment.

As for future advancements in virtual care? Dr. Michel is eager to see how we can create even more engaging patient experiences with our newly launched app, and develop additional resources for patients and all who support them — no matter their address.

Learn more about Eating Recovery At Home and Pathlight At Home.

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Written by

Alexandra Hayes Robinson

Alexandra Hayes Robinson is a writer and content strategist based in California. She's held senior leadership positions at Arianna Huffington's behavior change company Thrive Global and The Female…