Thursday, December 26, 2013

Making Better Mental Health Treatment a National Priority

By Ron Honberg, NAMI Director of Policy and Legal Affairs

Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a small, two-hour meeting with Vice President Joe Biden at the White House. The stimulus for the meeting was a sad one: the one year commemoration of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The meeting was attended by a small group of parents and surviving family members of victims of the tragedy.

Although it is a heady feeling to meet with the Vice President, this was one meeting I wish there was no need for. The Sandy Hook tragedy focused attention on the nation’s broken mental health system and fostered a national dialogue that continues through today. The focus has had an impact in many states. As documented in NAMI’s recently released state legislative report , a majority of states increased funding for public mental health services in 2013, after years of budget cutting.  

Sadly, the impact at the federal level has been less dramatic. Despite lots of rhetoric, the U.S. Congress to date has passed virtually no legislation to address the crisis in the mental health system. At the meeting, Vice President Biden announced that the Administration was doing what it could, specifically releasing $100 million in discretionary funds to be split equally among improving capacity to provide mental health services in Federally Qualified Health Centers and in beefing up mental health services in rural communities. While these measures will not solve the crisis, they are steps in the right direction.

I came away from the meeting with the Vice President with two enduring impressions. First, I am amazed and awestruck by the families of Sandy Hook victims who have somehow managed to translate unspeakable grief and sadness into positive acts, including raising funds for more mental health services in schools, developing programs to support other families who experience tragedies, and advocating for funding for research to better understand the workings of the brain. In the meeting with the families, Vice President Biden noted how profoundly difficult it was for him to speak publicly after the tragic death of his wife and daughter in an auto accident many years ago, telling the families how inspired he is by the work they have done to honor their lost family members.  

My second enduring impression concerns the Vice President himself, who has clearly spent much time in the last year learning as much as he can about the mental health system in America. In a far ranging and rich conversation, Mr. Biden led the group in exploring what can be done to prevent tragedies like Sandy Hook and others that have taken place. He remarked that serious mental illness remains in the shadows of American society and that the barriers imposed by societal ignorance about these disorders discourages individuals and families from seeking help and support when they most need it. He is particularly concerned about early identification and intervention during those critical years when symptoms first emerge. As many NAMI members know too well, there are no easy solutions, particularly in a society that still tends to shun those manifesting severe psychiatric symptoms. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that there appears to be sincere interest on the part of the White House in finding solutions.

The costs of untreated mental illness in America are staggering. Many of these costs are incurred by criminal justice systems, emergency rooms, and other systems left to respond to those who have fallen through the cracks of a failed mental health system. It would not be a stretch to declare untreated mental illness as the number one health crisis facing America today, yet I am hard pressed to think of politicians who have run for office on a platform to improve services for people affected by mental illness. In a sad, perverse sort of way, the Sandy Hook tragedy may serve as a turning point. It is high time to make better treatment of mental illness a national priority.


Anonymous said...

Hello I'm a single mom with bipolar depression ...I have one child a boy that will be 9 new years Eve 2013. However I have not had my Christmas with him and haven't seen him since December 1,2013 due to his father's reactions and keeping him away! I have filed with the courts in Maine and seeing a lawyer January 2014. However no court date yet n I filed the first week of December ..where his dad also took my son out of school so that I could not get him and I have every right. I can not contact my son on my own because his dad said he will get me for harassment :( sucks I used to have sole custody until a serious car accident in 09 and his dad won't give him son n I are very close and his dad is trying to break that connection!

Anonymous said...

I am very concerned about this. I know someone who has been hospitalized several times but is now 18. The family will have to call the police if he has problems and the criminal justice system will step in. Families can get guardianship if they can prove it is needed but it is very costly. Also, this person only receives counseling once a month due to the patient/therapist ratio.
Another issue is that mental illness is often diagnosed in the late teens when students should be graduating but are often hospitalized. Laws should be in place to accelerate the graduation process so that a plausible future can be obtained.
The mentally ill are locked away from their families and homes and are hidden from society. This is a tragedy as these people are extremely talented and creative. The families are burdened with lost work due to treatment and there just aren't enough services available to transport patients to their appointments and help working families with their loved ones.
If these people had cancer, diabetes, or needed transplants there would be huge campaigns for them. They just need acceptance and guidance and the public refuses. Sadly, for parents, they know that under layers of illness and psychosis their precious child is still in there somewhere.

Lisa M said...

Thank you for the update! I live in Virginia and just now found on your web site how I can advocate for mental health issues. Count me in on helping. I dont want anyone to go untreated. I have treatment and medication and still suffer, I cant imagine having nothing


Jen said...

Excellent information, Ms. Gay. Oh, and love your name. (My middle name is Gaye.) Please continue to keep us abreast of what's happening nation-wide to improve mental health services. Thank you so much.

Ilene Flannery Wells said...


Knowing that you met with Vice President Biden gives me more hope than ever before, that the medical and support needs of people with the most serious forms of brain disorders, such as schizophrenia, bip-polar disorder, schizo-affective disorders, and others, will be properly communicated.

I believe you truly understand the intense supports that are needed to help people whose illnesses include the most serious forms of psychosis, cognitive functioning loss, and lack of insight, not only get into treatment, but get the proper therapies, discharge support, follow-up, housing, food preparation, hygiene support, and treatment-plan and medication management.

Thank you Ron, for all of your efforts on behalf of the "Pauls of the World".


Ilene Flannery Wells
Paul's Legacy Project

Jen Flatt Osborn said...

My sincere apologies to Mr. Ron Honberg, NAMI Director of Policy and Legal Affairs. I'm a writer and didn't look at the by-line(!) But everything else applies to you. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect I cannot understand with all the latest technology and supposed research the treatment for depression caused by chemical imbalances seems to be the very same meds with a new name and marketing gimmick.If it doesn't work it doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect I cannot begin to understand with all the latest technology and supposed research the treatment for depression caused by chemical imbalances seems to be the very same meds with a new name and marketing gimmmick.If it doesn't work, it doesn't work.

Chat with Julie Reed said...

I so agree,and I am making those changes with my son with no help.Its not been easy and I'm so mad I couldn't find the help I needed when he first had signs. But I finally after 5years of searching found help and feel positive he's going to do better.

Anna Kaminsky said...

It is unfortunate that it takes tragedies for the conversation to switch back to mental health, and that it quickly moves in another direction once time passes. We need a real solution to these problems that is ongoing and proactive, rather than trying to fix the system after something horrific happens. Mental health needs to be as much of a priority as physical health, and even more so because of stigma, lack of access and the huge cost to society.

Anonymous said...

I am a mother of an adult son who has mental issues and each time a tragedy such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School occurs,he has a relapse.I strongly feel that it is high time all positive proposals be put into action rather than waiting for more tragedies to happen. My situation is further worsened because of the existing laws, where I cannot help my son when I notice that he is not himself and needs stabilization in a facility. Several times I have told that I cannot force him to go to the hospital as long as he is not a danger to himself or to the community he leaves in. It is encouraging to hear from other parents through this blog. Thanks.

Lauri H said...

My 22 year old son was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. He was let down at every turn. He couldn't get a bed at the hospital when he was feeling suicidal. 4 days later he WALKED to the hospital himself afraid he was going to harm himself and looking for help. He got checked in at the hospital but they didn't follow protocol and left him sitting unwatched in the waiting room. He got up and walked out (with a hospital bracelet on his wrist), walked to the freeway and jumped off the overpass. He didn't want to die, he went to the right place for help more than once and was let down. I want to fight for more funding for better health care. My son was paralyzed from the neck down. He lived like that for 6 weeks and then asked to be removed from the ventilator. He died October 25, 2013 surrounded by his family. I need to fight to make sure this never happens to another family.