There is an epidemic going on in the United States that leaves no community unaffected, and unfortunately, the Obama Administration is either unaware of its severity or has chosen to ignore the systemic wounds it has inflicted on our society. The conversation about the need for mental health reform, for a national campaign to end the stigma surrounding mental illness, to promote mental wellbeing as vitally important as physical wellbeing, has been just that – a conversation – for too long.
The Central Valley has the highest prevalence of serious mental illness amongst adults in California, which is compounded by the extremely low number of mental health providers. Reforming our mental health system and delivering critical care to those who need it is long overdue, which is why it is a priority of mine to advocate for those living in the shadows of stigma and shame.
Almost two years ago, I brought Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) to Tracy for a roundtable discussion with local law enforcement, healthcare providers and families about mental health and Rep. Murphy’s bill, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. The heart-wrenching stories of rejection and frustration with a broken system that local families shared with me continue to resonate to this day.
Our mental health system is in desperate need of repair. In 2015 alone, there were 43,000 suicides. There is a shortage of 100,000 psychiatric beds and more than 20,000 child and adolescent psychiatrists. Even care that is delivered is often delayed for more than 70 weeks after the initial appearance of the illness. The $130 billion dedicated each year towards mental health is grossly misspent and mired in red tape. An investigation by a House Oversight Committee found that not a single psychiatrist is employed by the leading federal mental health agency. Further, agencies that receive federal mental health funding don’t even document how these dollars are spent – the government is blindly throwing money at programs that, at minimum, could possibly be beneficial, yet there is no way to know for sure.
This mental health bill is just the start of what must be a serious overhaul of our approach to mental wellbeing. It ensures that there are protections in place for particularly susceptible populations, such as veterans and children. We are reminded that not every wound is visible and not every battle is over as 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Rep. Murphy’s bill strengthens programs currently in place with the Department of Veterans Affairs so that calls to suicide prevention hotlines – literal calls for help – never go unanswered. It also creates grant programs, institutes a national study, forms a national awareness campaign and eases access and affordability of mental health services for children. There is overwhelming evidence that the majority of serious psychiatric illnesses occurs before the age of 24. Implementing prevention measures, expanding treatment options and educating the public about mental health are all crucial to reform efforts. We have the opportunity to offer future generations the care, services and resources that too many have been denied.
While inaction on this bill in 2014 was extremely disappointing, Rep. Murphy, a clinical psychologist who has been a tireless advocate for mental health reform, reintroduced his mental health reform, and the U.S. House of Representatives voted to send it to the U.S. Senate for further consideration. This is tremendous progress, and I am proud to be a co-sponsor of this long-awaited, much-needed legislation.
The time to act is now. We have an opportunity for real reform, to turn our discussions about change into meaningful outcomes. This is an initiative that can become a reality. This is an initiative that can deliver life-changing care. This is an initiative that we owe to the American people and to our children.
Jeff Denham is a local farmer, small businessman, veteran and the U.S. representative for California’s 10th district.