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Mental Health Gets Parity

Posted Oct 07 2008 6:13pm

It’s taken years longer than it should have but a great injustice has just been put right. For years, millions of Americans were denied health coverage simply because the source of their illness was in the wrong part of their body.

Can you imagine breaking your left arm and going in to see the doctor only to be told that your insurance didn’t cover it because it was the wrong side of the body, that only injuries to the right side were covered. It’s ridiculous isn’t it.

Well, that is exactly what people who suffered from mental illness were told year after year. They were told that they were not covered because insurance companies considered mental illness to be different from physical illness.That was the case whether the illness was depression, schizophrenia or post traumatic stress disorder.

But last week Congress passed, and President Bush signed into law, a measure that for the first time requires group health plans to treat mental illness the same as physical illness and provide equal coverage for them.

According to the Congressional Budget Office this will improve coverage for 113 million Americans. You read that right, 113 million Americans. That’s how many people  in this country suffer from some sort of mental health problem. The tragedy is that it took this long to get widespread recognition and acceptance that these people deserved the same coverage and access to care as people with physical ailments.

There are many reasons why the Mental Health Parity Act finally got passed. In recent years there has been mounting scientific evidence showing that mental illness has a biological cause and that it responds to treatment. There have also been studies showing that workers with mental health issues are more productive and healthier if they get treatment - that helped push the business community behind it.

Another important factor is the number of famous people who have come out in recent years and openly talked about their mental health issues. Whether it was Mike Wallace and Tipper Gore talking about depression, or Carrie Fisher talking about being bipolar, every time someone in the news went public it helped reduce the stigma and fear surrounding the disease.

It also didn’t hurt that the media began to pay a lot more attention to the topic once it became clear that many of our soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, and that in some cases it had fatal consequences, either because returning soldiers committed suicide or killed someone else.

Finally, a small group of individuals and organizations worked tirelessly over the years to change the face of mental health, to pull it out of the shadows and to reduce the fear surrounding it.

One of those was the Carter Center in Atlanta. Former First Lady Rosalyn Carter has been a champion of mental health issues for more than 30 years. She began raising awareness about mental health when most people preferred to keep it hidden and not talk about it. She played a huge role in making people see that it was a disease, like diabetes or asthma, the only difference was its point of origin.

I was fortunate a few years ago to be named a recipient of a Rosalyn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism (the work I produced is part of this site, under the Special Report category). I got to meet and spend some time with Mrs Carter and appreciate just what an extraordinary lady she is.

So for me it’s particularly gratifying to see her decades of work finally come to fruition.

And for the millions of Americans who have been discriminated against for far too long, this is a day long overdue.

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