The pandemic has led to a surge in mental health need in Mass., survey finds

The coronavirus pandemic has profoundly affected the mental health of Massachusetts residents, especially young adults of color, according to a new survey published on Tuesday.

The survey, commissioned by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, looked at behavioral health care needs and access to care from January of 2020 to March of 2021. Researchers found that more than one in three Massachusetts residents over the age of 19 reported needing behavioral health care for themselves or a close relative. Among those who reported needing care, 26% percent said they were not able to get it and 64% of those who said the pandemic exacerbated their need for behavioral health care services.

"We definitely have a behavioral health crisis that has come along with the COVID pandemic," said Audrey Shelto, foundation president and CEO. "This is really intended to get a real, comprehensive snapshot from people themselves reporting on what has been their experience in terms of behavioral health needs and in terms of accessing behavioral health services."

The survey was done by NORC at the University of Chicago and gathered information from more than 1,700 Massachusetts adults about their experiences with behavioral health care during the first year of the pandemic. The respondents included both those with commercial insurance and those with public insurance.

The level of need identified for behavioral health care was higher among three groups: young adults between the ages of 19 and 39, people of color, and lower-income populations.

Respondents also said the pandemic increased their financial stresses and substance use. Almost half of those surveyed reported job losses or pandemic-related disruptions. More than a quarter of the respondents reported an increase in alcohol or cannabis use since the start of the pandemic, with 17% saying that alcohol and cannabis use caused "serious problems with their personal responsibilities" over the previous year.

The foundation report on the survey also cites efforts by the state to improve care, such as the Baker administration's so-called "Roadmap for Behavioral Health Reform." The "Roadmap" will be implemented over the next few years through several steps designed to improve access and the delivery of behavioral health care.

Among other things, the "Roadmap" is expected to create a new 24/7 behavioral health help line, launch urgent care centers for behavioral health and create community behavioral health centers. Some of the funding for the plan was included in the governor's budget proposal for the next fiscal year.

"We are in a really unprecedented window of opportunity in terms of leadership commitment across the commonwealth on Beacon Hill to address these problems," Shelto said. "I've been working in the field of behavioral health for a very, very long time, and the focus on these issues, the understanding of the urgency of the behavioral health needs of people in the commonwealth and the commitment that I hear from the leaders of the commonwealth are unprecedented."


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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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