Unmet need for professional mental health care among adolescents with high psychological distress
Objectives: This study reports the rate of unmet needs for professional mental health care in a large multi-state sample of adolescents. We also sought to describe barriers to professional help, informal help seeking and future help-seeking intentions among adolescents with wholly unmet needs for counselling for mental illness. Methods: We collected measures of mental health, help-seeking and unmet needs in 1599 students (817 males and 781 females) in 16 schools (mean age = 17.7 years, standard deviation = 0.42 years). Adolescents meeting ‘case’ criteria for high psychological distress were classified as having no need, fully met needs, partially met needs or wholly unmet needs. Participants were asked about actual service use, perceived unmet needs, barriers to professional help, help seeking from other sources, use of self-management strategies and future help seeking intentions. Results: In all, 35.7% (n = 571) of the sample met criteria to be designated ‘cases’ with high psychological distress. Of these, 25.9% (n = 148) were classified as having ‘wholly unmet needs’ (cases of untreated prevalence with self-perceived unmet needs), translating into 9.3% of the original sample. Compared to cases with partially met needs, adolescents with wholly unmet needs engaged in significantly less self-help, used less informal help from family/friends and reported lower future help-seeking intentions. Common barriers to care included a preference for self-management and concerns regarding stigma. Conclusions: A concerning proportion of adolescents have untreated high psychological distress with wholly unmet mental health needs. This group is rendered particularly vulnerable by low rates of access to non-professional sources of help and low engagement in self-management strategies. Further research is needed to support this vulnerable group to access needed professional mental health help.