Mar 1, 2023 - Health

CDC: Black Americans most likely to go to ER for mental health care

Illustration of a brain surrounded by medical crosses and lines

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Black Americans are nearly twice as likely as white Americans to go to hospital emergency departments for mental health care, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a new report based largely on pre-pandemic data.

Why it matters: Demand for behavioral health services is swamping the health care system, but those turning to an ER indicate which groups might be facing extra barriers to care.

The big picture: While the Biden administration has made tackling disparities in mental health a priority, it's running up against long standing inequities in care, housing and income.

What they found: Among the 6,000 mental health-related ER visits between 2018 and 2020, Black Americans had the highest rates for any mental health disorder — including substance use, anxiety and mood — at 96.8 visits per 1,000 adults.

  • Black and Hispanic adults between the ages of 18 and 44 were more likely to go to the ER for mental health issues than any other group, followed by Black and Hispanic men.
  • Black and Hispanic patients were also more likely to wait more than an hour to be seen than white patients.
  • Medicaid was the primary source of payment, covering 41.5% of visits. The figure is highest for Hispanic patients at nearly 60% and Black adults at about half.
  • More than a third of these visits were in the South. Of those, more than 42% of patients were Black.

By the numbers: The CDC estimates 1 in 5 adults have a mental disorder but that less than half receive treatment.

State of play: Emergency departments are facing growing pressure in the wake of a pandemic that debilitated the mental health of millions.

  • In North Carolina, mental health patients in need of psychiatric treatment are spending hours — and in some cases, days — in emergency departments waiting for an open bed to be admitted.
  • Neighborhood gun violence in Philadelphia is corresponding with a 31% increase in mental health-related ER visits in the 60 days after a shooting.
  • Across New Jersey last year, ERs were seeing spikes as high as 49% in teens needing psychiatric help compared to 2021.
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