KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A new report takes a deep look into mental health diagnosis and treatment in Knox County, noting the main causes and obstacles people face in getting help.

The Knox County Health Department released data on issues and barriers facing Knox County mental health providers and offers recommendations to address them.

According to the report, Tennessee is ranked 27 out of 51 states (including the District of Columbia) for a high prevalence of mental illness and low access to mental health care.

“Mental health affects every aspect of our lives and is a critical component of overall health,” said KCHD Senior Director Kevin Parton. “This report provides a starting place to evaluate our current mental health landscape and looks at ways the most urgent barriers to accessing mental health care can be improved.”

More than 50% of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their life according to data from the Knox County Health Department.

Top Issues Impacting Mental Health

Providers were asked to list the top issues impacting mental health within their communities. Overall the top three most urgent issues were found to be homelessness, anxiety, and childhood trauma.

Mental health is one of the top five causes of homelessness in Knox County, alongside a lack of affordable housing, eviction, job loss/unemployment, and substance misuse. The report explains that for a person experiencing untreated or undiagnosed mental illness, their ability to obtain stable housing can be affected. Homelessness can also contribute to mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD due to the stress of housing insecurity and difficulty accessing health care.

Providers reported that anxiety was the second most urgent issue impacting mental health. It was ranked in the top three issues for children and adolescents ages 0-17. The report also details that anxiety was ranked as the most urgent issue in the inner city.

Childhood trauma was ranked by providers as the most urgent mental health issue and the top issue impacting various demographic and population groups in Knox County. The 2022 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 1 out of 5 Knox County Schools high school students reported having two or more adverse childhood experiences. According to the report, this can lead to depression and other negative mental and physical health outcomes.

Barriers to Mental Health Services

The report found that the top three barriers to mental health services in Knox County are transportation, knowledge of available services and access.

Transportation is rated as the most common report barrier. Providers added that the increase in telehealth options has helped make address this issue. Providers suggested increasing in-home services and similar options that could take services directly to those in need.

Knowledge of available services is rated as the second most commonly reported barrier to mental health services. Those who have used mental health services shared that the process of finding a provider was an added stressor when experiencing mental health issues, as the information found can often be confusing or unclear.

Access is the third-highest reported barrier to receiving mental health care. It encompasses agency capacity, insurance coverage, and continuity of care. The report shared that nearly 90% of Mental Health Survey respondents indicated a lack of available appointments and more than 50% stated that people were not able to get needed mental health services in their area.

Recommendations to Address Barriers

The report outlines several recommendations to reduce and eliminate barriers to accessing available services. The report explains that addressing immediate concerns would include: “funding the development or expansions of transportation services available to individuals to attend their appointments; addressing the mental healthcare workforce needs to meet the demand of services from residents; and increasing awareness of currently available services in the area to both potential clients and partner agencies.”

The report suggests developing a local crisis hotline to address mental health needs and reduce emergency service utilization. It also says the county needs to increase the capacity of services and increase the availability of group homes and long-term care facilities. To help overcome barriers, the report suggests offering subsidized or free transportation to appointments and increased access to telehealth services. It adds that to offer education to people and organizations within high-risk populations to increase awareness of existing resources.

The recommendations within the report were developed through data analysis and feedback from focus groups. To see the full report and read all of the recommendations, click here. Data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), Homelessness in Knox County report, community health data collected by the University of Tennessee, and local hospital discharge data were used to supplement the report’s findings.

The Mental Health Association of East Tennessee offers free mental health screenings on their website for anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, psychosis, PTSD, alcohol and substance use, and more. Find it here.