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.