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Laurie Flynn, Executive Director, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI)
The Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health is an important step forward, building on the vision of the White House Conference on Mental Health which earlier this year identified the crisis in mental illness treatment in the United States.
The Report provides a national baseline for understanding mental illness and the gap between what we know and what we do in treating mental illness. It describes a system that is fragmented, with critical gaps and barriers.
Mental illnesses are biological brain disorders. Treatment exists, if you can get it, but too many Americans cannot.
Every year, one out of every five Americans—adults and children alike—experience a mental disorder. No one is immune. The direct cost to the nation is approximately $70 billion. Indirect costs total almost $80 billion. Mental illnesses kill. They ruin lives and destroy families.
The Report’s single, explicit recommendation is that anyone with symptoms of mental illness should seek help. But in the face of a public health crisis, Americans must demand that treatment and services be made available.
The Report provides a foundation for action. Ultimately, however, the President and Congress, and leaders at the state and local levels, are the ones who have the power to help. In spite of laws in over half the states, many health insurance programs continue to discriminate against people with mental illness. In spite of overwhelming need, many public programs also do not give priority to those who are most in need.
The Report recognizes the importance of a quiet scientific revolution that has generated greater understanding of the nature of mental illnesses and effective treatments. But what the Report does not explicitly say is that the federally declared Decade of the Brain must not end. As America enters the new millennium, we must redouble and triple commitments to scientific research—and commit to finding a cure for schizophrenia and other severe brain disorders.
The Report recognizes that mental illness cannot be treated as separate and unequal to physical illnesses. In the 1950s, Brown v. Board of Education overturned the principle of separate but equal in America’s race relations and fueled a great civil rights movement. Today, this report must be used to fuel a broad national movement to end stigma and discrimination based on mental illness—and equally uphold the principle of individual dignity for those who suffer through no fault of their own.
As a society, we must commit to restoring the lives of Americans affected by mental illness and renewing the promise of an American Dream that includes all our people.
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