Opinions

Discrimination against mental health: written into our system

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Ailey O’Toole
  Staff Writer

It is no secret that discrimination against the mentally ill is present in so many parts of our society, both in our cultural beliefs and even in our justice system. Stigmas against people who are mentally ill are so powerful that it has been codified into federal law for over 50 years, and not many people are even aware of that.
The systematic discrimination against those struggling with psychiatric problems has pervaded into Medicaid and Medicare laws; this has led to the acceleration of emptying state psychiatric hospitals, which has left some of the sickest and most vulnerable patients without access to treatment.
Former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy has begun to speak out against America’s treatment of the mentally ill, advocating that people with mental illnesses or addiction have just as much right to care as those with physical illnesses:
“The USA routinely fails to provide the most basic services for people with mental illness – something the country would never tolerate for patients with cancer or other physical disorders.”
Kennedy has spoken out about his own struggles with mental illness, including alcoholism and bipolar disorder.
Ron Manderscheid, executive director of the National Association of County Behavioral Health and Disability Development, explained that cultural stigmas against the mentally ill are the root cause of the Medicaid law that was crafted half a century ago; the law was born of the belief that mental health was a “black hole for money,” Manderscheid explained. “Congress didn’t want to waste federal money on mental illness.”
Tim Murphy, a child psychologist who has proposed legislation to ease these restrictions, explained that an obscure provision of the Medicaid law specifies that funds may be used to treat physical ailments but not for mental illnesses. The Medicare law also discriminates against those with mental disorders by limiting the number of days patients can receive inpatient psychiatric care.
“We can no longer carry these old prejudices and myths against mental illness forward, because too many of our family members and friends are dying,” Murphy asserted. He believes that with the right leadership, improvements in mental health care will have bipartisan support, because nearly every family includes someone who has dealt with problems such as depression or addiction.
Patrick Kennedy compared the struggles of mental health patients to those of racial minorities during the Civil Rights era: “If you think about it, they’re living in a separate and unequal system of care.” Kennedy believes that a stronger enforcement of the federal Mental Health Party and Addiction Equity act, which he helped sponsor, would change some of the laws limiting psychiatric patients’ access to care. The law requires insurance companies to cover mental health care equally to other types of medical care, but it has not been readily enforced.
Kennedy wishes to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, President John Kennedy, who took a major step forward by opening federally funded community health centers. However, former congressman Kennedy says there is much more to be done to replace insufficient state funded mental health treatment. He referred to last year’s decision by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to keep a mental institution closed; Branstad, a Republican, argued that the mental hospitals were not needed.
Recently, Kennedy spoke at Drake University in Iowa on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign; he explained that unlike her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, Clinton has proposed extensive and specific ideas to improve the mental health system, such as launching a national initiative for suicide prevention and training law enforcement officers in crisis intervention.
“We need to have a new movement, and I can feel that movement right here in this room,” he told about two dozen Iowans who are active in the mental health system. “And it’s going to be led by Hillary Clinton… She is going to make this one of her national priorities.”

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