by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director
State legislatures are convening across the country on the heels of last week, when many Americans struggled to find answers to tough questions surrounding the tragic shooting incident in Tuscon, Arizona.
As we at NAMI were engaged with media throughout the week, we saw the story changing. Early in the crisis, news media were contacting us about issues primarily focusing on gun control, laws and legal issues. Over the course of the week, however, the focus began to change.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll released late last week and discussed on weekend political talk shows, only a small percentage of those polled said they believed the shootings were politically motivated and most believed that the situation was avoidable. Significant for NAMI, however, is that 23 percent of those polled said they believed the tragedy was the result of an inadequate mental health care system.
Just nine percent blamed loose gun control laws.
This is consistent with what we experienced. By the end of the week, journalists, producers and other members of the media were requesting information and insight on the mental health care system, the budget crisis, consequences of previous years’ cuts and assistance in understanding the important role of family support and education. We anticipate a range of media coverage of this advocacy priority and are working to ensure that our story, and the story of millions of American families, is heard.
These are NAMI’s issues. If any good can come from a situation such as the Arizona tragedy it is to raise awareness for the need for a mental health system that is accountable to meeting the needs of families and individuals affected by mental illness.
This week and in the coming months, as our legislatures are debating their states’ budget crisis, what to cut and what to keep, we all need to send a strong message that mental health care can’t take any more cuts.
We know that many states continue to find themselves in a dire budget crisis. Since 2009, states have cut more than $2 billion from essential services for persons with mental illness and eliminated over 4000 inpatient psychiatric hospital beds. We have already lost many essential services that help people with serious mental illness get services when they need them. And one-fifth of the states have proposed or already cut their mental health budgets for the next fiscal year.
I ask, what is left to cut? Are we willing to accept the fact that on any given day one-half of all Americans with mental illness are untreated? In too many communities people simply do not know where to get help when they need it. There is a general lack of available information and/or the barriers are too steep to get the necessary evaluation, diagnosis and effective treatment.
If mental illness is an illness like any other, why do we treat a person having a psychotic episode different than someone having a heart attack? Why do policymakers tolerate a mental health system where law enforcement, jails and prisons, emergencies rooms and homeless shelters are the entry point for the mental health system for many with untreated serious mental illness?
We must tell policymakers, no more! Tell them the cost is too high! Tell them to prioritize services for people with serious mental illness. Tell them it is time to educate the public on what mental illness is and how to find services. Tell policymakers to spend smart and be accountable for the services they fund. Tell them to fund early intervention services that get services to people when they need them. And tell them to support the families and friends who offer invaluable support to persons with mental illness.
So let our advocacy begin in earnest this week and next. Please send an email message now through the NAMI website. Alert your friends and family to do the same. Individuals, families, friends, neighbors and co-workers who are affected by mental illness urgently need your help.