The effort began thirty years ago, and has had bipartisan support from the likes of President Jimmy Carter and President George W. Bush, who signed it into law. It has just this month been enacted, when the Obama administration issued final regulations.
What is this that has taken so long? The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act, which will finally make it law for insurance policies to treat mental illness the same way as any other illness.
I have long maintained that the only way that we are going to figure out mental illness is if we treat it as the name implies — an illness. I am hoping that this new law will help.
When our son committed suicide on this date in 1995, he was able to be buried with rites of the Roman Catholic church, because of a papal decree officially allowing it that was signed in 1983. There are still many religions – Christian and otherwise — that consider suicide a final sin and will not bury suicides with religious rites.
We like to think we live in enlightened times in an enlightened country. We no longer segregate people with leprosy, because we have medical treatment for the disease. We have discovered that clean drinking water will prevent cholera, which was at one time thought to be caused by “morally and physically intemperate” behavior. Chlorinated water, public sanitation and vaccines have nearly eliminated typhoid fever. We know that bacterial infections can cause stomach ulcers, long thought to have been a reaction to stress.
However, our attitudes and knowledge of the causes and treatments for mental illnesses would suggest we are living in the Dark Ages, not the Enlightenment.
A man recently walked into the airport in Los Angeles, and fatally shot a TSA officer and wounded others. The shooter was in turn shot by police. The shooter’s family had tried to warn police that he was mentally unstable and was threatening suicide, but the warning came too late.
Did the headlines in the news media ask if the shooter was suffering from a mental illness? No. The LA Times headline read: Alleged gunman’s motive remains a mystery. USA Today wrote: Feds probe LAX shooter’s anti-government view. Associated Press wrote: Investigators try to piece together what motivated LAX suspect’s hatred toward TSA.
Perhaps if it were easier to get help for mental illnesses, more of us would seek medical help. Just as the survivor rate for some cancers went up after women began to regularly seek breast exams and men prostate exams, perhaps the survivor rate could improve for those suffering from mental illnesses and their victims.
Perhaps as more people with mental illness seek help from primary care physicians, those physicians will become more knowledgeable about mental illness. Perhaps when doctors realize how many of their patients suffer from some sort of mental illness they will demand better training in medical schools and more money spent on research on the causes of mental illnesses.
Maybe if we had more effective treatments for mental illnesses, if we had better and simpler screening for mental illnesses, mental illnesses would become recognized diseases and more manageable.
If mental illnesses became more manageable, lives could be saved — from suicide and homicide, from alcoholism, from drug overdoses, from homelessness.
First we have to have the conversation. I hope this new law will be the jump start our society needs to address the devastation that mental illnesses cause in this country.
Of course this law does not mean that all insurance policies must cover mental illness; you must elect to have coverage. Strange, isn’t it, that a person like myself, who is long beyond childbearing age and capability, or my gay men friends not contemplating a pregnancy, must have maternity insurance under the new ACA. Stranger still that none of us — over a quarter of whom suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder — must have coverage for mental illness. Government will never be perfect, but it wouldn’t hurt for it to strive to make sense.