By Mary Giliberti, J.D.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending the President’s announcement on his initiatives to address gun violence. As part of those initiatives, he proposed adding $500 million to the federal budget for mental healthcare. He noted that it is very difficult to access mental health services and that suicide is a terrible problem in this country. Sitting in the East Room of the White House, I was so grateful to hear our President speak to the inadequacies of the current mental health system and the needless loss of life to suicide.
NAMI and our members know that additional resources are desperately needed in mental health care. We are the ones who are told to come back in three months or go on a wait list if we can even find someone in the first place. For those with very serious conditions, it is very difficult to find the level of services you may need, such as an Assertive Community Treatment team or supportive housing. At this time, we are not sure where the administration will propose adding the $500 million, but we know that the need is vast.
NAMI will be working with the administration and Congressional leaders to support added resources for evidence-based services that help people living with mental illnesses and their families. We will also be working on comprehensive mental health reform. We are grateful for the Republican and Democratic leadership and consensus that mental health should be addressed. NAMI refuses to let partisanship be an excuse for no action. This is not about politics for NAMI members. It is about our lives and the lives of people we love, and we will hold our elected officials accountable for results.
I know that many of our members and supporters are deeply uncomfortable that the President’s initiatives and federal mental health reform efforts are being linked to violence. We want the reform and the resources, but worry about the price in public opinion and stigma. These are very real and valid concerns.
At the same time, we must recognize that the public already equates mental illness and violence due to the diagnosed or speculated illnesses of those involved in Aurora, the Navy Yard, Virginia Tech and others. We must use this opportunity to educate and focus on the scientific research, which indicates that only a very small portion of those with mental illness have an increased risk for violence, particularly when untreated psychosis and substance use are involved. The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, but are actually more likely to be the victims of violence.
Tragedies for individuals with mental illness and their families are happening every day. This is the reason why we must use every opportunity to make the point that we need comprehensive mental health reform and additional resources. Too often, people end up in emergency rooms, jails or homeless on the street. Despite the early onset of these conditions, symptoms are usually not recognized and addressed early enough. NAMI must insist that every person with a mental illness have the opportunity to recover and lead a life full of friends, family, work and home. We can change the experience of mental illness in America; we just need the political will to do it.
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