Wednesday, March 18, 2009
If the U.S. were my students, they'd flunk
The National Alliance on Mental Illness recently released a report card on America's health care system for adults with mental illness. Our grade: D.
At the Newhouse School of Public Communications, where I teach, this is a failing grade. We flunk when it comes to creating a support system for people with mental illness. We have no network of consistent services, no consistent access to mental health care, and no standardized system of licensing or treatment criteria.
We fail in other ways, too. We as a society fail to take seriously the ravages of mental illness. We step over those with mental illness both literally and figuratively. We turn our faces away. We perpetuate the shame and stigma of diseases like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and, yes, eating disorders.*
My students always want to know how they can raise their grades. I put the same question to all of you: How can we as a society raise our grades when it comes to mental illness?
Here's my two cents on the subject:
1. Offer incentives to those studying to be doctors and therapists. One reason we have such a staggering lack of good mental health providers is that in our current health-care system (or shall we say lack of health-care system) they can't earn as much as other docs. This is partly a function of how our disgraceful so-called health insurance system works. See 2.
2. Mental health parity is a good first step, but it's full of loopholes. Enact legislation that prevents health insurers from weaseling out of covering mental health issues. The track record is dismal, especially for eating disorders.
3. The first two items on the list would start us on the road toward lessing stigma around mental health issues. Shame on the health insurers for heaping more shame, and financial burden, on families struggling with these issues.
4. Talk, talk, and more talk. The more we talk about a subject, the less shameful it becomes. Social change takes time. Let's get started.
What are your ideas?
* I'm not a believer in classifying eating disorders as mental illnesses, but for now that's where they reside and so that's where we've got to live with them.