A system unbuilt
Mental health must be priority
As an advocate for better mental health care in Arkansas and in our nation, I get asked how I think we need to fix our broken system. My answer is simple, but heartbreaking.
You can’t fix a system that still needs to be built.
Funding for mental health in America seems piecemeal at best, and it seems to be absent or forgotten much of the time. Whether it’s the lack of understanding of mental illness in general, the persistence of stigma that surrounds mental health conditions and those who have them, or the true “back of the burner” view of the issue — a lack of interest in mental health with a preference for other topics—we’ve not built a system to properly treat, or help prevent, mental illness.
At the same time, funding for mental health care is cited in government as a key component for facing some of our greatest challenges today. In situations like the opioid epidemic, the consistent and disturbing rise in suicide rates, particularly among our veterans, and incidents of violence where mental health treatment was noted as lacking, elected officials call for stronger mental health care.
And they are correct. We need more care. And we need consistent care; care that isn’t left in jeopardy.
Yet actions do not follow those words. What we’ve seen this year is an effort to go backward, leaving the U.S. with less money to treat more people who need it.
Medicaid is the largest provider of mental health services in the country. Reform bills introduced in Congress, including the House-approved American Health Care Act, will make severe cuts to Medicaid. None of these proposals increase funding nor provide the means to establish the foundations for a strong national system. Instead, they threaten to push us backwards, leaving more citizens sick and untreated.
People who are depressed, who feel they are becoming unstable, who are frightened of what they are thinking, will have even fewer outlets to find help. Sadly, some won’t find that help in time.
We will continue spending our money on mental health, let’s be clear. If the funding is not there for sufficient diagnosis, treatment, research and prevention, then we will continue to spend it in all the wrong places. We will spend it in costly emergency rooms, in jails and prisons, on homelessness, and see it in school failure.
In a country as strong as ours, there is no reason to wait until the worst has occurred to respond. By then, careers are ruined, families are damaged, and lives may be lost. To provide the mental health care that Arkansans need, we must build a system that can properly address and prevent illness.
With all due respect to our congressmen and senators, cutting Medicaid will not get us there.
After the rush of votes last week, health care may no longer be on the immediate front burner. Even if the votes stop, the needs of Arkansans with mental illness do not. The issue will return to the U.S. Capitol soon enough.
Until then, let our leaders know that mental health care should be a priority and not an afterthought.