Kate Farinholt is executive director of NAMI Maryland. Jean Harris is executive director of NAMI DC. Rhonda Thissen is executive director of NAMI Virginia.
Recent high-profile celebrity suicides have gotten people talking about mental-health care. Unfortunately, too many Americans from all walks of life are not seeking the help they need to care for their most important organ, their brain. This applies to those experiencing thoughts of self-harm and symptoms of bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health problems. Often, the barrier is awareness of their right to mental-health care under the law.
Many people don’t know that mental-health parity is the law. This means health-insurance plans must provide the same coverage for treatment of mental illness and addiction as for physical ailments. Congress passed legislation to this effect in 1996 and strengthened requirements in 2008, but it took the enactment of the Affordable Care Act to truly deliver on the promise.
Before the ACA, a person with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder couldn’t obtain private health insurance in most states, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Today, no one with a preexisting condition — including mental illness — can be denied coverage. Whereas many health plans once excluded behavioral-health services — i.e., treatment for mental-health conditions and addiction — they are now an “essential benefit” required by law.
And there are other improvements being driven by the ACA. Today, mental-health screenings are taking place as part of regular checkups. Care coordination is helping patients and their doctors put together integrated care plans. And technologies are making it possible to access mental-health resources from a smartphone.
This is vital because more than 50 percent of Americans will develop a mental illness or disorder during their lifetimes. That’s why former congressman and mental-health advocate Patrick J. Kennedy recommends that everyone get a “checkup from the neck up.” Mental-health screenings save lives. And they’re covered — so talk to your health plan or your doctor.
The United States should celebrate the progress we’ve made on access to health coverage, but there’s work left to be done. The uninsured rate among those with mental illness remains higher than for the general population. Without coverage, the majority of these individuals will not receive any treatment. And while suicide rates in the District, Maryland and Virginia remain below the national average, we’ve witnessed a startling increase. From 1999 to 2016, Maryland’s suicide rate shot up more than 25 percent, and Virginia saw a similar 23.5 percent rise in only 10 years, from 2006 to 2016. The District’s rate went up 16.1 percent between 1999 and 2016. To reverse this trend, we must ensure those at risk can get the help they need.
One solution the National Alliance on Mental Illness has advocated is to expand Medicaid as allowed under the ACA. Virginia recently voted to do so, joining Maryland and the District. Now very-low-income families throughout our region will have far greater access to mental-health care.
This hard-won victory demonstrates what’s possible when we come together to protect and build on the ACA. Good mental health is an essential component of wellness. Everyone deserves access to high-quality care, and we should all make use of the coverage we have.
If you or a loved one needs help and doesn’t know how to get it, contact the NAMI HelpLine at 800-950-6264.