On Thursday, July 18th, NAMI President Jim McNulty testified before the New Freedom Initiative Commission on Mental Health. Established by President George W. Bush, the Commission is charged with conducting a "comprehensive study of the United States mental health service delivery system, including private sector providers, and to advise the President on methods of improving the system."
In poignant and moving detail, Jim McNulty spoke about his own experiences with the mental health system, stating that his introduction, like so many other people, came initially through a brush with the criminal justice system. "Today, I can say that I am one of the lucky people who has had access to the services I need to achieve stability and recovery," McNulty said. "This was not always the case. In 1987, when I was first diagnosed, my health insurance plan provided virtually no coverage for mental illness. ... The negative consequences on my life were traumatic and extreme. Were it not for the kindness of friends, I would have become homeless."
The problem, McNulty said, is not that we don't know how to provide people with the treatment they need. The problem, he said, is that most people don't have access to this treatment. "Twenty percent of Americans experience mental illness. Two-thirds never receive treatment. Stigma is a big part of the problem."
An example of such stigma appeared on July 10 when The Trentonian - one of 23 daily newspapers nationwide owned by the Journal Register Company - used the headline "Roasted Nuts" to describe a fire at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey. This was a particularly egregious example of the kind of stigma that perpetuates discrimination and drives people away from participating in treatment.
McNulty also warned that the President and Congress must ensure that the Commission's recommendations are not ignored once they are made - reminding the audience that recommendations made by the last mental health commission appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 were subsequently disregarded during the 1980's.
In comprehensive written testimony submitted to the Commission, NAMI discussed proposals for reforming and improving mental health systems and services in nine broad areas:
The New Freedom Commission will continue meeting at least once a month through April 2003. We anticipate that the Commission will hold field hearings at several different sites during this time. Strong consumer and family participation in these hearings will be important. We will inform you of the sites and dates for these hearings when this information becomes available. The Commission is particularly interested in hearing about model programs and systems that effectively blend multiple funding streams (e.g. mental health, Medicaid, substance abuse, housing, vocational rehabilitation, etc.) into quality services for youth and adults with mental illnesses.
See New Freedom Commission for further information about the Commission, including names and contact information for Commissioners.