Contributed by Victoria Dinov, New Voters Communications Intern
2020 has brought a slew of hardships for many people, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic brought about healthcare, economic, and social crises. Amidst all fo, these issues, it also exacerbated a long-overlooked problem in America- the mental health crisis. From the most rural towns to the biggest cities in our nation, Americans with mental illnesses are being denied access to mental health care. This issue will and must play a major role in the 2020 elections for both candidates and voters.
The mental health crisis has been growing slowly but steadily. According to the World Health Organization, 800,000 people commit suicide every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15- to- 29- year olds, amounting to 159,975. The mental health crisis also affects adults: The 2019 report by Mental Health America “The State of Mental Health in America” found that over 10 million adults do not receive the mental health treatment they need, while 10.3 million adults have had serious thoughts of suicide. With this crisis at hand, it is even more worrisome that the effects of the mental health crisis, especially on youth, are increasing. In a 2019 report from the Center for Disease Control, it was found that the suicide rate for youth ages 10-24 has increased by 56 percent in the past two decades.
In response to these horrifying statistics, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is working to make mental health part of the conversation in the 2020 election cycle. Leading the mental health advocacy crusade as America’s largest grassroots mental health organization, NAMI is affiliated with 600 independent organizations and has founded 48 state branches. The Alliance’s primary goal is to work on issue advocacy to improve the mental health system and garner more awareness regarding the crisis. To better educate millions of voters and engage candidates in the mental health discussion, NAMI started the Vote4MentalHealth campaign, which aims to inspire voters to vote for mental health reform at the ballot box. The campaign also educates voters about how the different levels of government affect the availability of mental health care in their community. The campaign hopes to inform and empower voters to elect candidates who make positive changes to the mental health care system.
One major reason that mental health issues have not gotten enough attention is the stigma surrounding them. Mental illnesses are often viewed as less urgent than physical impairments, and sometimes the people with them are blamed for their own conditions. Mental Health for US, a coalition of mental health professionals and organizations that hold a similar vision to that of NAMI, is attempting to mitigate these problems. The group also aims to bring mental health policies to the spotlight in the 2020 elections, and they hope to center the health care conversation equally around both physical and mental care. Ultimately, NAMI hopes to inspire and pass legislation supporting a triple-pronged plan: prevention, treatment, recovery.
There are many possibilities for new legislation expanding access to comprehensive mental health care. Telemedicine via video conference has become a popular alternative form to traditional therapy. It has been especially effective amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also helps patients with limited transportation and/or geographic proximity to mental health professionals. For many of these patients, teletherapy provides access to necessary care. In 2019, a telehealth movement swept the nation as many states began to supply and insure telehealth services through Medicare and Medicaid. This wave also brought about the reintroduction of the Mental Health Telemedicine Expansion Act, which would expand the Social Security Act to include the use of telehealth services for treating certain mental health conditions.
Federal investment in suicide prevention research is another major way in which elected officials can address the mental health crisis. With suicide rates up by 35% since 1999, this issue is more crucial than ever. Funding for researchers will help healthcare providers understand the problem’s root causes and potential solutions. Since the Senate and House appropriations committees play major roles in allocating the funding for this type of research, getting involved in congressional races is a crucial way young voters can make a difference in this area.
Legislators also have the ability to strengthen a law that is often disregarded: the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act of 2008. This act requires insurance providers to cover treatment for mental health and substance abuse disorders at an equal level to treatment for physical conditions. However, many insurance providers continue to fail to provide equal access to both physical and mental health care. This issue received national attention in 2019 when a federal judge in California found that the UnitedHealth Group discriminated against individuals with mental illnesses. In response, legislators should strengthen parity enforcement and should more strongly penalize providers that violate the equal treatment of all illnesses.
Our mental health care system is struggling to meet the needs of the increasing numbers of people facing mental illness. In 2020, voters have the chance to elect politicians who place mental health care as a top priority in their health care plans. We must stand up for our communities and support the millions of Americans fighting for access to mental health support.