State of Mental Health: Challenges and Solutions

Elizabeth Sierminski

One in five Americans suffer from mental illness but less than half receive treatment. Teresa Pasquini, whose son was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 16, spoke about the difficulties in accessing treatment at a program about mental health at the Newseum in Washington D.C. on July 18 sponsored by The Hill. “He has fallen through every crack of our system,” Pasquini said. “We are dealing with a system of lucks and heroics rather than a continuous system of care.”

Pasquini, an advocate for mental health, joined federal and state leaders, health officials, caregivers and academics for the discussion titled, The State of Mental Health: Challenges and Solutions, supported by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and the National Council for Behavioral Health

Governor Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) said, “If I can get someone into treatment, it saves the state money.” Representative Leonard Lance (R-NJ) added, “Mental health should be at a parity with physical health to have the best healthcare possible.”

 “We have dug a hole by failing to invest in mental health prevention and treatment,” said Fred Osher, director of health services and systems policy, Council of State Governments Justice Center. He attributes this to a science-to-service gap. “There is robust empirical literature on what works for whom under what circumstances but that is not what people are getting. We need to promote evidence-based care, pay for what works, and ensure that people get the best care that science supports.”

Speakers agreed that policymakers should reframe HIPAA laws. In their current form, they said the laws prevent providers from talking to families and other mental healthcare providers about patient treatment. This silos services and leads to missed opportunities and poor management.

They also agreed that development and implementation of the 21st Century Cures Act was a step in the right direction. Pasquini said federal lawmakers, “brought families like mine into the forefront.” Dennis Hobb, executive director, McClendon Center, applauded cures for promoting professional judgement in sharing sensitive patient information.

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, the Cures Act made mental health a federal priority by appointing an Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders; establishing a federal laboratory for testing and disseminating mental health policy changes and service models; and allocating Department of Justice funds to grant programs.

Future legislation should do more to marry the treatment model with the medical model and allocate funding to early intervention programs. “While ACA provided that mental health be an essential benefit, we are still lacking on appropriation of those funds,” said Dr. Altha Stewart, president, American Psychiatric Association.

“This time last year we were celebrating Cures and the ACA,” said Linda Rosenburg, president and CEO, National Council for Behavioral Health. “Now we are going to take a deep breath and again look towards progress; acknowledge the pain of those who have not received adequate care but also look at what is working and what can work.” 

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