No More Lives Lost: Now Is the Time to Fix America’s Mental Health System

New legislation will help combat suicide and broaden mental health services, but it needs action from the public and from Congress.
(Photo: Parker Deen/Getty Images)
May 23, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Mary Giliberti, J.D., is the chief executive officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Previously, Giliberti served as a section chief in the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

May is Mental Health Month, a time to reaffirm our nation’s commitment to increasing our understanding of mental illness, improving access to treatment, and letting those who are affected by mental illnesses know they are not alone. This month provides us with the opportunity to continue our national conversation about the mental health system, yet now is also the time that we must turn that dialogue into action.

Taking action is imperative because the facts are alarming. Today, one in five Americans has a mental health condition. Recovery is possible, but at least half of people with mental illness do not get the care they need. America’s suicide rate is the highest it’s been in almost 30 years and is twice the rate of homicides. Despite all of this, and a lot of talk following recent national tragedies about the need for reform, we have failed to take action to address our mental health care system. A mental health reform bill has not passed through Congress in 40 years. It’s time that the country and Congress step up to address mental health. Too many lives are being lost because of too little action.

Although many issues compete for Congress’ attention, addressing America’s broken mental health system can’t be put off any longer—it’s going to take leadership at all levels to see improvement. There is a bill in the U.S. Senate, the Mental Health Reform Act of 2016, that can help, but the Senate needs to act now. This piece of legislation will combat suicide in our schools and communities through reauthorization of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and extension of a national suicide technical assistance center to support those in need. The bill will improve access to mental health care by providing more trained professionals who are available to help and by holding health insurance plans accountable for providing the mental health coverage people paid for and should receive.

We are issuing a call to action for our nation’s senators to provide lifesaving solutions to this national crisis by passing this bill. As a country, we know all too well the calls for national action following tragic events fall to the back burner as urgency fades. Yet, every day, hundreds of thousands of people affected by mental illness struggle because they do not have access to the services and support that could help them recover and live productive lives. These numbers are not acceptable. Sometimes invisible, sometimes evident, our inability to address this crisis also results in homelessness, incarceration, costly hospitalization, family suffering, or suicide for far too many.

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Here at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, we see firsthand the need for more help and resources on a daily basis. Recently, I spoke with a caller who had reached out to our helpline. He told me he wasn’t doing well and was even thinking of harming himself. I was able to transfer him directly to a trained suicide prevention hotline so he could get the help he needed. He has stayed on my mind ever since as I think about the importance of making sure we have the resources to help people when they need it most. As mortality rates from cancer and heart disease are falling, suicide rates remain high—even increasing for some populations.

We can do better. Access to timely and effective mental health care has never been more critical, and the challenge we face is the race against the clock. In an election year, there is a narrow window to pass legislation, and that window is slowly closing. This bill must get through before the window shuts—but we need your help signing the petition, which will be delivered April 25. We need Congress to act, move forward, and improve the lives of people living with mental illness.