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Time for Action on Mental Health Care | Commentary

By Mary Giliberti People living with serious mental health conditions deal daily with misconceptions and indifference, at best — and hostility and discrimination, at worst. Beyond even those daunting challenges, people with serious mental health conditions experience much poorer health and quality of life, homelessness, unemployment, and greater involvement with the criminal justice system. These outcomes, however, are not the inevitable results of brain changes; they are the results of failed public policy. More than half of all people with mental illness in the U.S. received no mental health treatment in the past year (nearly one-third of people with serious mental illness, or SMI), yet there is no urgency in Congress to find a solution.  

This, despite the fact that people with SMI are disproportionately represented among the chronically homeless and overburden emergency rooms throughout the U.S. because they have no place else to go for help. What’s more, the Council of State Governments estimates that 2 million people with SMI are admitted to jails across the country each year. This is more than the total populations of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.  

Jails and prisons are inappropriate and inhumane places to house people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other serious mental illnesses. For this reason, people with SMI remain incarcerated for far longer than people charged with comparable crimes who do not have mental illness. Studies show that people with SMI die on average 25 years younger than the rest of the population.  

The tragedy of these statistics is magnified by the reality that recovery is often possible, if people receive appropriate mental health services and supports. But, in many parts of the country, these services are not available. As a result, untreated and undertreated mental illness is one of the most significant public health crises in America today.  

Congress is able to take action right now to make a significant difference to individuals and families struggling to find, arrange, and pay for mental health services. The first step is to mark up and pass comprehensive mental health reform legislation currently pending in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. Both the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015 (HR 2646) and the Mental Health Reform Act of 2015 (S 1945) have bipartisan support and will help improve access to and quality of mental health services and supports.  

Across the country, much has been made of the growing bipartisan effort to address sentencing reform for non-violent offenders. Yet, Congress now has the opportunity to pass legislation that encourages alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders with mental illness and substance use disorders. There are several bills with bipartisan support including the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act of 2015 (S. 2002) and the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act of 2015 (HR 1854; S 993) pending in the Senate and House that will have a substantial effect if passed.  

Finally, it is widely recognized that safe, decent, affordable housing is the lynchpin of recovery for people who are chronically homeless due to SMI and substance use disorders. Getting people off the streets and into stable housing is the first step to engaging people in a path to stability and productivity. Obama’s proposed budget for 2016 contains $25 million for new supportive housing units for people with severe disabilities, including SMI, but the federal funding bill is currently stalled in Congress.  

I challenge every policymaker who chooses not to make mental health a priority to spend one day with a mental health advocate. I have no doubt if that if our elected officials spent a single day answering phone calls, posts and emails to our HelpLine from people in desperate need, they would recognize the critical need for action. For individuals with mental illness and the people they love, it is time to put aside partisanship, overcome inertia and prioritize mental health legislation.  

Mary Giliberti, J.D., is the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  

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