The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the bulk of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ensured greatly improved health care for children, especially those not fortunate enough to have parents with employer-provided health insurance.
We could start with what the new law will do for children struggling with mental illness and substance abuse, two challenges that often go hand-in-hand.
Whereas millions of children were previously denied health insurance due to pre-existing mental health problems, the reform would give them access to quality, affordable coverage. It will also expand the age at which they can remain insured under their parents’ plan to 26. These two measures alone will enhance the mental and physical well-being of millions of American children.
As a community organizer doing juvenile justice work in the Anacostia community of Washington, D.C. in recent years, I’d often come across children with behavioral issues rooted in untreated mental illness and substance abuse.
It was heartbreaking to review case after case and find that proper medication and counseling could have prevented a lot of the young people we served from ever entering the criminal system. The systemic failure to meet their medical needs was a major contributing factor in the revolving door of delinquency and arrest that so many of them were trapped in.
Juvenile use of marijuana was at the core of this vicious cycle. Struggling with psychological trauma brought about by family dysfunction, rampant urban violence, sexual abuse, and a host of other problems, they often self-medicated with illegal drugs. Rather than being treated for substance abuse addiction, they were instead incarcerated. Medical matters would often get reduced to legal ones.
Tragically, it was not until many of them entered the criminal system that they began to receive the kind of care they needed.
While this reform stands to improve quality of life for many of them, it doesn’t come without threats to Medicaid, which greatly affects low-income communities. Hopefully, states will expand coverage to low-income families as needed and not opt out of providing coverage simply because they won’t face federal penalties.
The fact is that poverty and mental illness have historically been demonized and criminalized in this country. But it’s not a crime to be poor or mentally ill. It is, however, inhumane to doom some children to living lives crippled by mental illness and substance abuse just because they are poor. Opening paths for these children to receive help before they self-destruct or become a prison statistic will elevate the nation as a whole and improve the fabric of our future.
As author and activist Terry Tempest Williams said, “The eyes of the future are looking back at us, and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.”