Mental Health Care is Crucial Disability Need

Mental Health Care is Crucial Disability Need

During the pandemic, calls to mental health hotlines soared. People in emotional distress learned that psychologists were booked months in advance or were completely unavailable.

While COVID dramatized the need for mental health treatment generally, new research reveals how important being treated is to people with disabilities.

Isaac Swensen and Carly Urban at Montana State University found that ready access to outpatient care slightly increases applications for disability benefits by working-age people under Social Security’s insurance program and by poor and marginally employed workers under the companion program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Mental illness in its severest forms can interfere with the ability to work, making some individuals eligible for federal disability assistance.  But to qualify, the Social Security Administration requires that applicants submit a diagnosis from a medical professional. Applicants with mental illness living in areas with more treatment options, the researchers explained, are potentially able to obtain a proper diagnosis.

Getting people the help they need can increase their reliance on social safety nets. But access to successful treatment – whether the individual has a cognitive or physical disability – might also arguably prevent some severe conditions that make people eligible for disability benefits in the first place.

The researchers’ analysis used U.S. Census data on the location of outpatient mental health clinics in more than 1,800 counties to compare application rates in places where the number of clinics increased or decreased with places that saw no change in treatment access. The researchers controlled for factors known to affect the number of applications being filed, such as the local unemployment rate and income levels.

An increase in applications in areas with better treatment access doesn’t necessarily translate to more disability beneficiaries. But the researchers did find some evidence that more SSI benefits are awarded in poorer counties where access to treatment is high and people have a stronger financial incentive to apply for the benefits.

Mental health resources, particularly in less-affluent counties, “can be a pathway through which people suffering from severe mental illness can become properly diagnosed and access the social safety net,” the researchers conclude.

To read this study, authored by Isaac Swensen and Carly Urban, see “The Effects of Expanding Access to Mental Health Services on SS(D)I Applications and Awards.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

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