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Doing something about mental health

When I was in elementary school more than half a century ago, there was still widespread ignorance about mental illness.

There were also no home computers, no thought of smart phones, no internet and virtually no seatbelts in cars. Black people were called Negroes, not allowed to vote in many states, and nobody imagined they’d ever see an African-American president.

Well, all those things have radically changed, except for this: There is still widespread ignorance about mental illness, and stigma against the millions of Americans who have some form of it, through no fault of their own.

As Senator Debbie Stabenow noted recently, “Fewer than half of all Americans living with a mental health condition received treatment in the past year.”

For years, she’s been saying, “it’s time to treat illnesses above the neck the same way we treat illnesses below the neck.”

Well, now she’s done something about that. Even though Democrats are in the minority in the Senate, she managed to partner with Roy Blunt, a Republican senator from Missouri, to get Congress to pass an Excellence in Mental Health Act.

What the act does is create an eight-state demonstration zone that will increase funding for community mental health centers to allow them to provide vastly increased services, including 24-hour psychiatric crisis care and counseling, and combined treatment for substance abuse and trauma along with mental illness.

Such problems often occur together, and treating them in separate silos neither makes sense nor has worked very well.

Additionally, Stabenow’s bill makes it possible for individual clinics to be designated Certified Behavioral Health Clinics. The name is not important. What does matter is that such clinics will be reimbursed for services, including preventive screenings and counseling, at higher, more competitive rates.

One long-held goal of mental health advocates is to get the authorities to treat mental and physical illness equally when it comes to funding.

As Tom Watkins, CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority told me in a recent e-mail, “Inability to pay for mental health services is often a stumbling block for those in need.”

Both Watkins and Stabenow know firsthand about the devastation of mental illness. He lost two brothers to suicide; the senator has been very open about her father’s long struggle with bipolar disorder, and how she discovered as an undergraduate psychology student that it had been misdiagnosed for years.

Their hope, of course, is that the pilot programs made possible by the new Excellence in Mental Health Act lead to dramatically enhanced funding for mental health programs nationwide.

Personally, I think that in terms of productivity, that might be about the best investment our government could make.

Michigan wasn’t automatically one of the eight states, by the way; it has to apply for a planning grant by early August, and the winners will be announced in September.

It would be highly embarrassing if we didn’t get it together enough to win a grant, since our own senior senator was the bill’s major sponsor. Stabenow says her goal is to enable those with mental illness to live long, healthy and successful lives.

That’s something you’d think everyone, regardless of politics, ought to support.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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