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It should be as easy to find help for mental health issues as it is to buy a gun

Posted Sep 18 2013 4:21pm

It ought to be as easy to get help for mental health issues as it is to buy a gun.  Barack Obama said something like months ago.

Its not.

And that is a regrettable, discouraging, and preventable crime.  It is a crime that victimizes thousands and thousands of people each day, their families, their friends, and their communities.  It is a crime made worse because it doesnt have to happen.

People recover.  Given the tools, the encouragement, the support, the guidance people regain and transform their lives.  The testimony of thousands of people point to this.  It has been said so many times it seems common sense.  It is not, for way too many, common experience.

For the last 3 days I have been in Washington DC with over 700 other people going door to door with our legislators asking them to help make it a more common experience.  We talked about several bills that could begin to drive the changes to do just that.

While we were there 13 people were shot and killed at the Navy Yards.  It happened probably less than a couple miles from us.  It gave our discussions more edge and focus.  Too often these incidents are seen as an indictment of those with mental health issues.  That is just so much nonsense and that truth has also been well documented.  The “mentally ill” are much more likely to be the victim of violence rather than the agent of it.  Any approach which tries to “protect us from them” misses the point, misses the target and substitutes fear for action as a solution to such horrible tragedies.

It appears that the shooter at the Navy Yards has needed help for a very long time, even made some efforts to get it, but fell between the cracks of a system that has crowded cracks.  I asked myself if he lived in my community would he have received any better help.  The answer very sadly is no.

He could have seen a therapist every couple of weeks, a psychiatrist every 3 or 4 months. Not just for him, but for many, many people who have never hurt anyone (except maybe themselves) this just isnt enough.  But there are proposals out there that might make a difference.

“The Excellence in Mental Health Care Act” was one of the things we talked to Congress about.  It recognizes a simple truth.

  The budget cuts in virtually every state have not just made it hard not just to do business, but to do it well.  Despite yeoman efforts by many very skilled and dedicated people there are gaps in services everywhere.  Some people experience the services they are offered as skeletal at best, particularly if they have more than a basic level of need.

The “Excellence…Act” says people should be paid well and paid for doing more. The care you have access to is so often a function of your economic status and where you live and this act tries to make it a function of neither.  It says that we have a wide range of services that evidence proves works and that by paying people to do what works and do more of it things are better for all of us.  It is again a common sense that needs to become a shared reality.

Even with that there are still not enough boots on the ground.  Organizations like DBSA, NAMI and countless other state and local groups that know the power of lived experience and our ability to help each other and ourselves can and do play an integral role in helping develop a culture of recovery.  They know the central wisdom that life is transformed, not by what we do to other people, but by what we do with them.

Another very important bill we talked about was a bill to fund on a national level the training of “Mental Health Health First Aid.”  Mental health first aid is a community education program that aims to make each of us literate about mental health issues and equip us to deal with the mental health crises that so many of us encounter with family, friends, or just people we know.  Like first aid the aim is not to cure.  It is to save a life, to stop the bleeding.  There is impressive evidence saying it works and makes a difference.  It is a lot of bang for comparatively little bucks.  We can do it and it would be so senseless and tragic not to.

In Washington I heard a lot from people who are worried about the cost of services.  The point is well taken, but misses a larger issue.  How long can we or will we pay for the consequences of mental health issues.   How long can we watch people drown and say we wish we had the resources to save them?  Nothing is done without the doing.  If you think your voice will not be heard I can promise you a voice not spoken will never be heard.

The scorecard is truly sad.  It is time to change the score.

1 in 5 who either experience mental illness or addiction.

Only 4 out of 10 needing help that receive it.

1,100,000 Americans who attempt suicide each year.

The average lifespan of someone with a serious mental illness is 53 compared to the rest of the population.

100,000 lives lost to alcohol and drug abuse each year.

$300 billion in lost productivity due to mental illness each year.

It really should be easier to get help than it is to get a gun.  But it never will be without action on all of our parts.  Share this with other people.  Talk with your representatives.  Act.  The only mistake is not to.

It is time to tell people who struggle with mental health issues that they need not settle for life as it is but have a real chance to find life as it can be.

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