Things are looking bleak for Texans living with mental illness despite the fading stigma


Here’s my question this Mental Health Awareness Month: When will we move from erasing the stigma of mental illness to improving the access for those who need mental-health care?

Speaking as someone with plenty of firsthand experience on this topic, I believe the stigma-busting is yesterday’s news and it’s time to move to something more substantive. We can’t backslide on the stigma-busting but neither can we think that’s the battlefront.

I say that as someone who has written my share of kudos to worthy efforts to push back against misunderstandings around mental illness; most recently it was the Mental Health First Aid Kit.  This year, the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, established in 2013 by the Meadows Foundation, has an OK to Say campaign; colleague Leslie Barker has more details of that effort here.

Most recently, actress Kristen Bell has joined the list of celebrities who are trying to stigma-bust by talking about their personal battles with mental health issues. TheWashington Post does a good job with that angle here.

But more important than anything celebrities — whether here in North Texas or in Hollywood — have to say is what psychologist Anne Marie Albano said in the Washington Post story:

“We’re seeing a shift in the stigma of mental health in emerging adults,” said Albano, in conjunction with the release of a report by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.  “But until we can improve access to mental-health care, it is unlikely that this generation will receive the support and care for a long-term change in mental well-being.”

The story goes on to note that the cost of mental-health care is out of reach for many Americans. Last year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that fewer than half of the 43.6 million Americans with mental illnesses are receiving treatment.

That’s the more difficult part: getting quality help to those in need.

Which is why one of the most important things you could do this Mental Health Awareness Month is contact your state House or Senate member and tell them this issue matters to you. House contact information is here, and you can find Senate infohere.

While Texas lawmakers may not officially be in session, a select committee on mental health is studying the issue. Part of that focus is how the state can improve the delivery of mental health care. This Texas Tribune story includes who is on the committee; those would be good folks to contact with your point of view.

Meanwhile, in Washington, things haven’t progressed too much further than when we wrote this editorial last October: Congress can rewrite mental illness stories by doing this.

The Mental Health Reform Act of 2016, which has bipartisan support in the Senate, would create new grant programs for early intervention, a new assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse, and an interagency committee to coordinate the government’s response to mental health issues.

The problem is that this bill, approved in March by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, still needs more work before the Senate will vote. And, meanwhile, the Senate is turning its attention to appropriations legislation.

While the bill sounds so promising, two problems are likely to hold it back. The first is that it was approved without any funding plan and, as this Bloomberg article notes, finding offsets to finance the effort after the fact is a tough chore.

There’s also a political hot potato: Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn wants to see the bill combined with a piece of his legislation that includes boosting the federal background check system to prevent guns from getting into the hands of those with serious mental illness. According to Politico, critics of the Cornyn bill say it actually loosens restrictions on gun purchases, under the umbrella of mental health reform.

It’s too bad that good mental health legislation would be held hostage by linking it to the always strident gun debate. As Republican and health committee chairman Lamar Alexander said, “I think most of us would prefer to focus directly on mental health and leave the gun discussion for another day.”

So this Mental Health Awareness Month, don’t be satisfied to simply wear a green ribbon symbolizing that you have risen above the negative stereotypes of mental health. Contact your representative and others in Washington and tell them to pass the Mental Health Reform Act of 2016.

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