It has been reported widely in the news media that the pandemic was the chief reason for rising mental health concerns in children and young adults. A recent study conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, which tracks trends in employer-sponsored health plans, confirmed the youth mental health crisis did not actually begin with COVID.

Study results found that, in 2020 alone, 42% of all spending on mental health and substance use disorder treatment was attributed to individuals 25 years and younger. Total spending on treatment for mental health and substance use disorders totaled a staggering $77 billion.

Looking back at past studies, statistics confirm that behavioral health care expenditures for minors have been steadily rising in recent years. Utilization rates rose from 12% in 2013 to 18% in 2020. The pandemic was essentially the fuse that lit the powder keg. 

The family structure is typically a child’s main safeguard in the face of mental health concerns. Sadly, the pandemic trapped many kids in bad home situations with no lifeline. Most mental health experts agree that we won’t see the true outcome of depression and anxiety stemming from the pandemic in this population for another 5-7 years.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a faster-than-average 22% job growth rate for mental health counselors over the next decade. Still, given ever-increasing demand, job growth in the mental health field likely won’t be able to keep pace to meet the urgent need for services.

Primary care providers are typically the first line of defense for children 12 and needing mental health care. Payers must ensure these physicians are equipped with adequate screening tools and effective clinical response protocols. Addressing behavioral health concerns early and effectively will reduce rising emergency room utilization rates in children and young adults in crisis.

From a systems point of view, insurance companies must cultivate provider networks that value and prioritize comprehensive mental health care while continuously working on adding mental health care professionals with specialized pediatric expertise. 

There is no quick solution to this national health crisis that will continue to cost insurance companies billions of dollars every year. The best course of action insurance companies can take to control costs is to simply become better equipped to prevent and treat mental health issues. Providing the necessary training and resources to frontline providers will benefit both patients and the bottom line.