Throughout NAMI’s history, mental health advocates have shaped laws, increased funding and promoted research to address the inequalities and injustices facing people with mental illness in our country. In the last two years alone, NAMI advocates sent hundreds of thousands of emails to Capitol Hill and made countless phone calls and visits to their representatives in nationwide efforts to pass mental health reform (the 21st Century Cures Act) and to stop dangerous health reform proposals that would have hurt people with mental illness.
We’ve made progress, but we still have further to go. NAMI’s members have an opportunity in the 2018 mid-term elections to vote more mental health champions into office. From district attorneys to county officials to governors to members of Congress, every elected official plays a role in determining what services and supports are available to people with mental illness—and there’s never been a better time to cultivate mental health champions.
NAMI members are instrumental in helping raise policymakers’ and candidates’ awareness of mental health issues by sharing stories that help make those issues real. The goal in talking with candidates is not to convert them—it’s to converse with them. As a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, NAMI seeks only to educate politicians. This is how we develop trusting, invaluable relationships on both sides of the aisle, rather than being just another special interest group.
When speaking with a candidate, share a fact or two and let the person know how important mental health care is to you. Asking open-ended questions gives candidates a great opportunity to reveal their thoughts and share their visions for improving mental health care. Here are some policy positions that might help you identify whether a candidate is a mental health champion.
What Policies Should a Mental Health Champion Support?
1. Increasing the availability of mental health services and supports
Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences a mental health condition, yet more than 60% of those adults go without treatment. We need more access to quality mental health services and supports, especially for underserved groups like our nation’s veterans and people living in rural and frontier areas.
How do you know if a candidate is committed to increasing the availability of mental health services and supports? Ask them how they would improve mental health care. A mental health champion would invest in:
• Expanding access to mental health care, including for veterans and people living in rural and frontier areas;
• Supporting health insurance protections that cover mental health care at the same level as other health care;
• Ensuring Medicaid coverage for people with mental illness based on income to make sure people can afford the care they need;
• Increasing supported housing programs that offer stable, safe and affordable housing for people with mental illness; and
• Growing supported employment programs that help people with mental illness get training, search for jobs and be successful in the workplace.
2. Promoting early intervention for mental illness
Approximately half of all mental health conditions begin by age 14, and 75% begin by age 24. Every young person who experiences a mental illness deserves to realize the promise of hope and recovery. And the quicker a young person gets quality services and supports, such as first episode psychosis (FEP) programs, the better their recovery outcomes.
Ask candidates how they would increase early intervention for mental health conditions. A mental health champion would support:
• Increasing FEP programs, which provide recovery-focused therapy, medication management, supported education and employment, family support and education, case management and peer support;
• Promoting school-linked mental health services for youth, which bring mental health professionals into schools to provide mental health care to students; and
• Integrating mental health care into primary care settings to increase early identification and treatment of mental health conditions.
3. Ending the jailing of people with mental illness
About 2 million Americans living with mental illness are jailed each year—mostly for non-violent offenses. Unfortunately, a person experiencing a mental health crisis is often more likely to land in jail than in a hospital. Mental illness should not be treated like a crime. Instead, people with mental illness who are in crisis should be diverted into effective treatment options.
Ask candidates how they would address the jailing of people with mental illness. A mental health champion would support:
• Expanding Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT), a community policing model that helps law enforcement divert people to mental health treatment instead of jail;
• Ensuring that mobile crisis response teams can intervene and effectively de-escalate mental health crises; and
• Increasing Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) teams that provide intensive, wraparound treatment and support to people with serious mental illness.
When candidates hear from NAMI members about the importance of mental health care, they listen. We need more elected officials like this who understand and support mental health issues—officials who are committed to funding the services and supports people with mental illness need to be safe, stable and on a path toward recovery. You can do your part by engaging in a dialogue with candidates and voting for people who will become tomorrow’s mental health champions.
Jessica Hart is senior manager of field advocacy at NAMI.
Take the pledge to #Vote4MentalHealth and learn more at vote4mentalhealth.org.
Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Advocate.
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