By Mike Fitzpatrick, NAMI Executive Director
Mental illnesses are bipartisan, pervasive and have profound consequences for people’s lives. In the course of a year, about one in four people has a diagnosable mental illness every year. Almost everyone’s life has been touched in some way by mental illness. The face of mental illness is not the face of some stranger. It is the face of our neighbors and coworkers, our friends and family and sometimes us.
The good news is that the rates of improvement for serious mental illness like major depression and bipolar disorder are as good as if not better than those for chronic physical diseases like heart disease and diabetes. These rates of improvement are predicated on the person getting the right treatment when they need it. The bad news is that notwithstanding the existence of effective treatments and services and the real opportunities for recovery, 80 percent of Americans with mental illnesses do not seek or find the help that they need.
It is well documented that mental health care in this country is broken. The system that confronts families seeking care is too often fragmented, unorganized, and despite the best efforts by many, uneven at best in its quality. Too often what passes for the system of care sentences people to lifelong disability, the risk of premature death, and creates an impoverished underclass through poverty, crisis-focused care, treatment that relies primarily on medication, and the lack of supports in the community.
Every day people contact NAMI seeking advice on how to access mental health services. People face difficulty finding inpatient and outpatient services, supportive housing, job supports, in-home supports, affordable health insurance, family support, medication, peer-directed and self- help programs and more. The time is now during these times of dramatic change in our health care systems to push back against this discrimination and injustice and create a community care system that emphasizes early intervention and is flexible, accessible and integrated at all levels. None of these changes require additional study. It simply requires political and social will.
As we approach Super Tuesday in the Republican Primaries we are reminded that health care is an important but contentious issue. However, the potential ramifications for individuals living with mental illness have not been discussed. We must remind the candidates that funding mental health services means funding America’s future.