General practitioners treat most of the people who have mental illness,
according to a recent study. And there is an increasing likelihood that their
patients include those with major mental health problems.
A comparison of two nationally representative household surveys that
screened for mental disorders 10 years apart found that the use of only
general practitioners when seeking mental health treatment was the fastest
growing and most popular approach among the survey respondents. The study,
published in the July American Journal of Psychiatry, found that
respondents treated by only a general physician for any mental illness grew
from 2.6 percent in a previous survey to 6.5 percent in the most recent
The researchers attributed that finding to the increasing role of general
physicians as insurance plan "gatekeepers," increased access to
mental health screening tools, the growing popularity and safety of
psychotropic medications, and the increasing use of psychotherapies by general
One of the study authors, Harold Pincus, M.D., vice chair of strategic
initiatives in the Department of Psychiatry at columbia University, said the
most troubling finding was that patients with serious disorders expanded their
exclusive use of general practitioners to treat their mental illness.
The increased utilization of mental health care among those with moderate
mental illness—such as mild to moderate depression—bodes well for
the health of the population, said the authors, because research has found
that, overall, psychotherapy and medication have equivalent effectiveness.
However, the increased reliance on general physicians for mental health care
is more worrisome among patients with more serious illnesses in light of the
increasing evidence that such illnesses respond best to combined psychotherapy
and pharmacotherapy, which general practitioners are unlikely to provide.
"There is a question of whether the right people are being cared for
by the right professionals," Pincus told Psychiatric News.
The findings were based on comparisons of the assessments of mental
disorders among the 5,388 respondents in the 1990 to 1992 National comorbidity
Survey (NCS) and the 4,319 respondents in the NCS Replication conducted from
2001 to 2003.
The study highlighted the need for more information about what is provided
within "the black box of care" —that is, what specific
treatments are used and their effectiveness in improving mental health, Pincus
said. More studies need to investigate whether people are getting the quality
of mental health care that they need for a given condition, he said. The
results concerned Pincus in light of his previous research that found an
increase in the prescribing of psychotropic medications by general
practitioners, who are unlikely to have training in psychotherapy.
"People are making choices for medications and are maybe less
interested in psychotherapy," he said.
Continuing stigma over treatment from a psychiatrist or mental health
professional may drive some of the use of general practitioners alone for
serious illnesses, he said.
The study showed that more comprehensive mental health care training is
needed for primary care physicians, Pincus said. It also highlighted the need
for psychiatrists to communicate better with general practice physicians and
establish closer referral relationships with them so they are more aware of
the types of conditions that require specialty care, he said.
"General medical care without specialty use may result in lower
treatment intensity and adequacy than in specialty care," the
Psychiatrists were the second most common source of mental health care
among the more recent survey respondents, which saw their use rise from 2.4
percent to 5.2 percent of respondents. The researchers credited this to
diminished stigma, greater recognition that mental illness requires treatment,
and greater demand for and availability of pharmacotherapies.
People with serious mental illness remained a minority of those who sought
care from psychiatrists. The proportion of serious to less-serious cases
remained the same as the overall number seeking care rose, so psychiatrists
likely saw increases in both types of patients, according to the study
Although patients' use of nonpsychiatric mental health clinicians, without
first consulting with their primary care physician, grew from 3.6 percent of
respondents to 4.3 percent, the authors had expected more substantial growth
in this area.
"Given the fact that there has been a growth in the supply of
nonphysician mental health providers, we might have expected to see more of
that," Pincus said.
Major decreases in the use of psychotherapy alone to treat mental illness
continued in the most recent survey, a situation the authors attributed to
both tighter insurance coverage and the growing popularity of psychotropic
"Changing Profiles of Service Sectors Used for Mental Health
Care in the United States" is posted at<http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/163/7/1187>.▪