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Analysis

GAO: Most People with Substance Abuse, Mental Health Disorders Go Untreated

By John Commins  
   April 03, 2019

A federal report found no generally accepted estimate of downstream healthcare costs associated with untreated behavioral health conditions.

Nearly 57 million adult Americans have a substance abuse or mental health condition, and nearly 40 million of them go untreated, according to data cited by the Government Accountability Office.

"Not treating behavioral health conditions can lead to other health care costs, such as the costs of emergency care for an overdose," GAO said in a recent report. "However, GAO found that research on such costs is limited and there is no generally accepted estimate of all the healthcare costs associated with untreated behavioral health conditions."

Citing 2017 survey data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than 80% or respondents who reported a mental health or substance abuse problem said they did not perceive need treatment.

A further breakdown of SAMHSA survey results showed that:

  • Of the 18.7 million people with substance abuse disorders, 17.2 million are untreated.
     
  • Of the 11.2 million people with serious mental illness, 3.7 million are untreated.
     
  • Of the 35.4 million people with other mental illness, 22.9 million are untreated.

The SAMHSA survey found that people who perceived a need for behavioral health treatment but did not receive it blamed cost, stigma, and access challenges, such as not knowing where to go for treatment.

GAO said a review of existing literature on untreated substance abuse and behavioral health could not provide any downstream cost estimates.

"According to experts GAO met with, available research in this area is limited by methodological challenges, including determining which healthcare costs can be attributed to an untreated behavioral condition, and by limited data on the full prevalence of certain behavioral health conditions," the report said.

The 29 studies GAO reviewed for the report compared the healthcare costs associated with treating and not treating certain behavioral health conditions in adults focused more on specific behavioral health conditions and specific geographic areas.

“There is no generally accepted estimate of all the healthcare costs associated with untreated behavioral health conditions.”

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

Photo credit: Olivier Le Moal


KEY TAKEAWAYS

A SAMHSA survey found that more than 80% or respondents who reported a mental health or substance abuse problem said they did not perceive a need treatment.

SAMHSA found that people who perceived a need for behavioral health treatment but did not receive it blamed cost, stigma, and access challenges, such as not knowing where to go for treatment.


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