A turning point for patients with mental illness
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When it comes to providing care for individuals living with serious mental illnesses, we are caught in a vicious cycle. Extreme events bring about calls for change, but enthusiasm and accountability quickly wane. Initiatives begin, but rarely succeed. As a report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness noted, funding for mental illness increased after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, but funding decreased in many states the following year. We can and should do better.

To alter the current course, providing access to medications that help manage these conditions is critical. Unfortunately, the system is not structured to support a proactive approach to treatment. Laws mandate that a person demonstrate that they are a danger to themselves or others to receive the care they need. This reactivity, combined with the fact that it takes an average of 110 weeks for an individual experiencing a first psychotic episode to get that treatment, means the current structure is inadequate.

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Failing to get individuals the treatments they need has a negative impact on individuals, families and society as a whole. People with mental health conditions are more likely to smoke or abuse drugs or alcohol as a way of self-medicating difficult symptoms. They are also more likely to have co-occurring chronic physical diseases including cardiovascular disease and arthritis. This leads to high incarceration rates, homelessness, increased emergency room visits and school failures. As a result, the United States loses approximately $193.2 billion per year in earnings.

Shifting the current paradigm to one that provides timely treatments for mental health patients improves outcomes. One study in Pennsylvania found that approximately 60 percent of adults and 63 percent of children in the state with mental conditions saw their quality of life improve from the treatment they received through the mental health system. We have to identify ways to get individuals the treatment they need, when they need it, and it cannot be prohibitively expensive. Mental health patients often face higher co-pays, additional deductibles and higher coinsurance payments compared to services for physical ailments. This can lead to a decline in proper treatment because patients cannot afford these additional costs.

Fortunately, bipartisan legislation introduced and spearheaded by Representative Tim MurphyTim MurphyBiden receives endorsements from three swing-district Democrats A federal abortion law might be needed Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations MORE, R-Pa. and Representative Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonFive environmental fights to watch in 2020 Pelosi heading to Madrid for UN climate change convention What has EPA been hiding about formaldehyde? MORE, D-Tx., which was recently adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce, provides a strong foundation to address these challenges. It would allow patients to get the treatments they need more easily. To do this, they have proposed increasing access to psychiatric beds, helping caregivers access mental health treatment plans for violent patients with severe conditions, training doctors and patients about what can be shared with caregivers, creating accountability services to ensure care is delivered as it should be and improving coordination between government agencies that serve the mentally ill, to name a few.

It represents a tremendous step in the right direction and addresses some of the fundamental flaws within the current system. While no legislation is perfect, this certainly goes a long way toward fixing much of what is broken, and its bipartisan support only serves to reinforce that point.

Providing care for individuals suffering from mental illnesses cannot be cyclical. Failing to support efforts like those led by Representatives Murphy and Bernice Johnson, especially in light of their leadership in moving the bill through the legislative process, only serves to perpetuate our current state of inadequacy. Working together to take action, we can break the cycle and ensure that patients have access to the treatments they need and deserve. It will be a true turning point for patients with mental illness, their families and society writ-large.

Sperling is director of federal legislative advocacy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.