The COVID-19 pandemic has helped to draw greater attention to mental health issues that can be neglected in public policy debates. Even as the worst of the pandemic recedes, this is a good moment to consider improvements in mental health policy, especially better screening for mental illness; real parity between mental and physical health; and the provision of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for all, and for free.

1. Better mental health screening

Mental health problems typically present early in life, with three quarters of lifetime mental health conditions beginning by the age of 24. Yet an average of 11 years elapses between the onset of symptoms and diagnosis. Early detection allows for early and more effective treatment.

2. Real parity between mental and physical health

Additionally, while laws are in place to require insurance plans to cover mental and physical health care on equal terms, that does not always occur in practice – in part because the legal framework has significant gaps. A good place to start would be the implementation of the recommendations of the Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Parity Task Force in 2016, especially leveling the field in terms of pre-authorization requirements, introducing parity “templates” for insurance companies, and imposing civil financial penalties for parity violations. All employer plans should also be legally required to cover mental health care.

3. Free universal cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

When it comes to the provision of mental health treatment, a simple step in the right direction would be enabling universal access to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a “problem-focused, empirically based psychotherapy that teaches patients to detect and modify thought patterns and change behavior to reduce distress and promote well-being.” It has been proven to be highly effective and relatively inexpensive.

Read the full article about free universal therapy by Chenoah Sinclair and Richard V. Reeves at Brookings.