Mor more Americans have sought treatment for mental disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic than in years past, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics released Sept. 7. -health status or receiving counseling or therapy increased from 19.2% in 2019 to 21.6% in 2021.
The biggest increase was among the youngest adults, ages 18 to 44. Nearly 19% of people in this age group received mental health treatment in 2019, rising to over 23% in 2021. Other recent research shows that younger adults are more likely than older adults to experience mental health symptoms in the early years of the pandemic; about 63% of people aged 18 to 24 reported symptoms of anxiety and depression in 2020, for example, and more than 40% of adults aged 25 to 44 reported the same.
Young women are much more likely to receive mental health treatment than young men. In 2019, almost 24% of women (and 13% of men) aged 18 to 44 received mental health treatment; these numbers have grown to around 29% (and 18% respectively) by 2021.
There were signs that women were already vulnerable before the pandemic, including rising suicide rates among teenage girls and young women. The pandemic has compounded existing stressors on young women’s mental health, says Rachel Donnelly, assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University (who was not involved in the study). “These additional stressors take a particularly heavy toll on mothers, especially young women,” says Donnelly. During the outbreak, they disproportionately bore the brunt of school closures, caregiving responsibilities and job losses. “Who’s going to be in charge of homeschooling?” Donnelly says. “If your child is sick or needs to be quarantined, who is the parent most likely to stay home with them?”
Read more: Pandemic anxiety is fueling OCD symptoms—even for people without the disorder
To some extent, the increased use of mental health services may be a sign that more people in the US who need this type of care are receiving it. The pandemic has opened up new ways for Americans to get mental health care, including telehealth. In March 2020, only 1% of outpatient mental health and substance use visits were made via telehealth; that number had risen to 36 percent by August 2021, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis released in March. Insurers, including Medicaid, have also expanded coverage of mental health telehealth services.
However, many people are still not getting the mental health care they need. The new data found that in 2021, less than half of black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans ages 18 to 44 received mental health care compared to white people, and there were relatively small increases in the number of people receiving care from 2019 to 2021: only 1.1% increase among Hispanics; 4.8% among Asians and 2.4% among blacks. Those numbers suggest unequal access, Donnelly says. For example, while telehealth has been a boon for some people, it may not have been an option for people who don’t have high-speed Internet access or a quiet room in which to talk to a therapist, she points out.
Although research has shown that people of color — including blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans — have been more likely to experience damage to their mental health during the pandemic and the traumatic racially motivated killings that occurred during it, new data show that white people were more than twice as likely as people of other racial groups to seek mental health care during the pandemic. The youngest group studied, white Americans, saw a 6.6 percent increase in seeking care from 2019 to 2021. Young black Americans, however, saw only a small increase of 4.6 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. , but the rate is down 2.2% from that 2020 peak year later.
People of color are particularly likely to face structural barriers that make it difficult to get mental health care, Donnelly says. They are less likely to have paid time off and receive health insurance from their employer, for example, and tend to have fewer economic resources. “We know that there are mental health disparities — especially during the pandemic, which has had much more severe consequences overall for people of color,” Donnelly says. “There are many structural barriers. It will be added.”
More must-see stories from TIME