By Happy Carlock
America’s mental health system has historically been very fragmented. From the disparity between physical and mental health care coverage, to the way we talk about mental illness as a society, division has long been the norm. But we’re starting to see steps toward integration and unity at the federal level.
“You go to a primary care physician, and they’ll focus on everything below the neck,” NAMI Senior Policy Advisor Ron Honberg said during a Washington Post Opinions Facebook Live Chat on Sept. 9. “But now there are concerted efforts underway to figure out how to integrate physical and mental health care.”
The Facebook live chat took place the day after NAMI’s CEO Mary Giliberti met with Senate Leadership to advocate for passage of mental health reform. During the meetings, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s staff said that Leader McConnell wants to pass a mental health bill before the election.
Washington Post editorial board member Stephen Stromberg pointed out that mental health is one of the only issues that can pass a divided Congress and that the 2016 presidential candidates are speaking out on mental health care, too. He noted that the Clinton campaign released an agenda on mental health care, which highlights several of NAMI’s priorities, including early diagnosis and treatment, mental health parity, enhanced research focus and criminal justice reform.
The bipartisan “Mental Health Reform Act of 2016” (S. 2680) and the Clinton plan both seek to close aid early identification and intervention measures: “We know that about 50% of mental illnesses manifest by age 14,” Honberg said. “We also know that there’s a 10-year lag time from when symptoms first occur to when diagnosis is made and treatment commences.”
The mental health system has long been a system that waits until people have crises until any sort of services are available. The solution lies in engagement in every stage and type of mental health service. “We like the fact that [the Clinton plan has a] focus on addressing the horrific things that happen to people when they don’t get services.”
Our country should make the experience of treatment as humane and positive as possible. Providers have a responsibility to not only provide care, but to also educate people about their mental health needs. “That includes involving the person in fundamental treatment decisions and, very importantly, engaging their families and others who provide support,” Honberg said.
Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year. Yet a major gap remains between access to physical and mental healthcare and insurance coverage. Fewer than 50% of psychiatrists participate in health insurance. That gap translates into a geographical and socioeconomic gap in who gets coverage.
But Honberg still believes things are looking up. There is a national movement underway to incentivize community health clinics to provide better mental health care, as well as incentives for mental health centers to better monitor people’s physical health needs.
“The brain is part of the body, and we need to make sure that when someone has a physical exam, that the physician conducting that exam also asks about mental health,” Honberg said.
NAMI doesn’t just advocate for mental health insurance parity. We fight for mental health conversation parity. The more we talk about mental health, the more leaders we will see—in our local communities and in Congress—stepping up to improve our mental health system.
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