From the suicide of comedian Robin Williams to a shooting rampage that left 20 children and six adults dead in Newtown, Connecticut, the United States has many recent examples of the dangers of severe and untreated mental illness.
Why, after all the acknowledgment of the problem, do so many people still have trouble accessing mental health care?
One year after the White House hosted a day-long National Conference on Mental Health, Congress still has not passed comprehensive mental health care reform legislation. At the time of the conference, the administration launched a new mental health website, MentalHealth.gov. The site offers information about mental health conditions, how to get treatment, and how to make your voice heard when it comes to improving mental health care in America.
Meanwhile, the Affordable Care Act has declared mental health an “essential benefit” for Medicaid patients, and thousands are seeking treatment for the first time. As the influx of new patients floods the system, a lack of providers has left many people in urgent need of help unable to see a doctor quickly.
“Behavioral health is perceived as a cost as opposed to a profit center,” Dr. David Lischner, a Seattle-based psychiatrist, told Healthline. Lischner is the founder of Evidence Based Treatment Center of Seattle and Valant Medical Solutions. “Healthcare reform is designed to make costs more manageable as we focus on outcomes instead of volumes. Behavioral health is a big lever in the healthcare system.”
What Can You Do? Call Your Legislator
Saturday ends National Mental Health Awareness Week, but National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) spokesperson Bob Corolla told Healthline that efforts to shine a spotlight on mental health shouldn't end tomorrow, especially during an election year.
Corolla said mental health is one of the few issues that is non-partisan. “Mental illness affects Republicans as well as Democrats,” he said.
Corolla urges everyone to let political candidates at all levels of office know about the urgent need for mental health reform. “Look at the campaign literature, and if they haven’t said anything [about mental health] send an email to the campaign,” he said. “If you’re at a town meeting, raise your hand and ask. Mental health awareness doesn't end this week. It’s just one step in what has to be an ongoing dialogue, and in an election year that’s very important.”
Although two separate bills are now pending in Congress, he said neither is likely to pass this year. “It becomes less likely they’re going to do anything in what will end up being a lame duck session,” Corolla said.
NAMI offers tips on lobbying political candidates on its website.
Getting Past the Stigma to Seek Help
Many people don’t seek mental health treatment because they’re concerned about the stigma that comes along with it. People with a mental illness diagnosis often can’t obtain life insurance. Other times, they don’t want their employer to find out they’re seeking help.
“We want people to be fine about getting treatment, not worry about privacy, and have faith in the system,” Lischner said. “We need special rules.”
Corolla said friends and loved ones of people exhibiting symptoms of mental illness should gently extend a hand and offer to help.
He suggests approaching conversations with, “You don’t seem to be yourself these days. Is there something you want to talk about?” Point out specific behaviors you've noticed that seem unusual or detrimental, and offer to go with the person to a mental health appointment.
If somebody breaks up with a boyfriend or a girlfriend and is feeling depressed for a week, it’s probably nothing to worry about, Corolla said.
“But a lot of times depression impairs daily functioning to some degree. People may not want to get out of bed or may not have enough energy or enthusiasm to get through the day," he said. "If it begins snowballing and results in someone being late to work, or they find themselves fired, that creates a whole new level of loss.