Here's how to afford mental health care costs

·5 min read

In 2019, Jillian Amodio made the gut-wrenching decision to stop teaching yoga and sell her beloved four-year old studio in Annapolis, Md. It was the right thing to do at the time.

After all, the anxiety that her daughter, Juliette, had suffered from for years had escalated - quickly - and was no longer manageable. “She was struggling with severe mental health issues,” said Amodio.

Juliette, then 7 years old, couldn’t process emotions, control impulses, or handle frustration. She was often hostile. Mood swings made her unrecognizable. “The child I knew wasn’t the same child I was living with,” said 32-year old Amodio. “Every ounce of my attention was focused on getting her well.”

Desperate for help, Amodio called over 30 mental heath providers looking for openings. Those who had availability weren’t conveniently located or had months to year-long waiting lists. Others weren’t skilled in dealing with the issues Juliette was having. “There were no options so we had to turn to out-of network providers and pay for everything out of pocket.”

This story is “disastrously common and illustrates the sad state of mental health care in America,” says Jennifer Snow, Public Policy Director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization.

With a laundry list of complications plaguing the mental health system — from an extreme shortage of mental health providers, to lack of funding, to confusion over health insurance coverage, to discriminatory attitudes about mental health — “people with mental illness have been getting the short end of the stick for decades,” said Snow.

The pandemic may have exposed the U.S. health system’s weaknesses and reiterated the importance of mental health to overall health, she said, but it also crippled under the weight of more Americans - young and old - grappling with mental health disorders.

Dr. Robert Glatter, a decades-long emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, has never seen so many patients with “medical-type” complaints that end up being diagnosed as psychiatric disorders.

“Patients will come to me and say, ‘I don’t have any energy,’” ‘I’m dizzy,’ ‘My legs are tingling’ and a lot of it ends up being mental-health related physical conditions,” Glatter said.

Adding an additional layer of stress to the already fragile are associated treatment costs, said Snow.

“Every day, people are faced with potentially deadly consequences when they don’t get the care they need and deserve. While the ‘lucky few’ will just pay the astronomical out-of-pocket costs, others will take on heaps of medical debt, and countless others will forgo medically necessary mental health treatment or resort to self-medicating, which has cascading implications for society,” Snow said.

Below are some potentially life-saving strategies to help minimize the costs associated with mental health:

Take advantage of Employee Assistance Programs

“In response to the pandemic and other recent trends, many companies have expanded their employee mental health offerings, and are actively refining them with the introduction of things like employee support groups to meet a broad range of mental health needs,” said Jeris Stueland, an associate in employer healthcare services at McKinsey & Company. “They’re taking a more inclusive approach.”

Some are even aggressively touting specific benefits such as flexible work schedules, telehealth, and mindfulness apps to attract and retain workers in this tight labor market, but one resource they’re not promoting also happens to be one of their best: the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Bundled as part of a larger benefits package, EAPs provide a predetermined number of counseling sessions with a licensed professional, as well as referrals and follow-up services at a discounted rate.

These services are available not only to employees, but also to employees' immediate family members or to anyone living in employees' homes.

Look to the nonprofit world

When Marta Hamilton’s 24-year old cousin was struggling with depression, her family looked to her — a licensed professional counselor in private practice in El Paso, Texas, and founder of the TeleWellnessHub — for help.

Hamilton, 36, not only spearheaded the family’s crowdfunding efforts to cover some of the more immediate costs, but also looked to the nonprofit world for ongoing financial assistance.

There, she discovered sliding scale options via Open Path Collective, a nationwide network of mental health professionals providing in-office and online mental health care to those in need.

Hamilton also referred her cousin to NAMI, which offers free support groups and education programs in local communities nationwide.

See what your local community has to offer

Are you involved with a religious group? You could find the help you need within that community — from free support groups, retreats, and maybe even therapy.

For example, Graciela Rios earns a living as a licensed mental health counselor in private practice El Paso, but also volunteers these services to those in need through her local church.

Rios, who has been collaborating with her church since getting credentialed 20 years ago, said she is starting to see more communities respond to the mental health crisis by working with more professionals like her and by establishing partnerships with professional entities.

Mental health advocate, Josef Blumenfeld, who suffers from PTSD, concurs. “Local communities are creating a playbook from scratch, and I think they have the potential to create a new paradigm.”

Personal Finance Journalist Vera Gibbons is a former staff writer for SmartMoney magazine and a former correspondent for Kiplinger's Personal Finance. Vera, who spent over a decade as an on air Financial Analyst for MSNBC, currently serves as co-host of the weekly nonpolitical news podcast she founded, NoPo. She lives in Palm Beach, Florida.

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