Morning Zen

Congress, hear this mother’s plea: Help families with mental illness

June 09, 2016

Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Dottie Pacharis ~  

The media coverage of this year’s presidential election rages on. Meanwhile, meaningful mental-health reform legislation introduced in Congress has been relegated to the back burner. What was to be at the top of the 2016 House agenda, according to House Speaker Paul Ryan, has been pushed aside while Congress focuses on the politics of the election.

We have a presidential election every four years. We have a mental-health crisis in this country 365 days a year, every year. We only hear about the mass shootings that make the national news; yet tragedies involving untreated mental illness occur daily throughout this country and will continue to do so until Congress passes meaningful mental-health reform legislation.

Just this past February, it was reported that a father in Cape Coral was murdered and dismembered by his son who suffered from mental illness. The father’s torso was found wrapped in a sheet in a wooded area behind their home. Body parts were found in a suitcase floating in a canal.

The father lived in fear of his son. Because the son did not meet the commitment criteria for involuntary hospitalization, the father was unable to get the treatment his son so desperately needed to prevent this gruesome tragedy.

Yes, this year’s presidential election is important. So is mental-health reform. Seriously disturbed people struggling with mental illness need help now — not after the election — not next year. They need it now.

There have been multiple legislative proposals introduced in Congress to improve this country’s broken mental-health treatment system. The strongest bill is from Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Penn., the “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act,” (H.R. 2646), which has 191 bipartisan co-sponsors — 138 Republicans and 53 Democrats.

This proposed legislation calls for a complete overhaul of the current federal system, refocusing resources on helping those with the most serious mental illnesses by getting them treatment before, during and after a psychiatric crisis. Individuals with serious mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can lose touch with reality. Many don’t even know they’re sick.

Among many important provisions, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act would reorganize the way the federal government funds mental-health services by identifying and prioritizing programs that have a proven track record of success.

This bill would provide funding to help states use assisted outpatient treatment, a lifesaving program for people who are too sick to maintain treatment themselves. It would increase the number of inpatient psychiatric beds and make adjustments to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that prevents doctors from giving families the most basic information about their mentally ill relatives’ conditions.

Our current dysfunctional mental-health system abandons at-risk people to the devastating consequences of untreated mental illness. Mass shootings are on the rise. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S. Untreated mental illness not only results in suicide and homicide, but in substance abuse, crime and homelessness.

Our failure to care for the mentally ill comes at a high cost — not just in economic terms but in wasted human potential. Yet with proper diagnosis and treatment, many patients are able to overcome mental illness, contribute to society and live normal and happy lives.

Mental illness is not something people choose. It’s not a character flaw. It is a disease. It does not discriminate based on age, class or ethnicity. It affects all segments of society. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the number of people with schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder now tops 8 million adults in the U.S. Close to half of these people are going without treatment as families struggle to care for them.

As the mother of an adult son who suffered from severe bipolar disorder and took his life, I can personally attest to the fact that families for decades have had to watch their loved ones descend into “Code Red” territory because current laws do not allow them to push the “help” button until the person reaches the crisis stage. Only when an ill person becomes a danger, as determined by a judge at a commitment hearing, can this person be involuntarily hospitalized and treated.

Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis will mark a new era for mental-health care in this country. It will move mental-health care from crisis response and tragedy to recovery. Congress should move this comprehensive mental-health legislation forward now — not after this year’s election. 

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dottieDottie Pacharis is the author of “Mind on the Run — A Bipolar Chronicle.” She divides her time between Fort Myers Beach, Florida, and West River, Maryland. Since her son’s battle with bipolar disorder, she has become an advocate for appropriate care for the mentally ill, especially family involvement in decisions about treatment. Dottie is the author of Mind on the Run – A Bipolar Chronicle, the story of a suicide that proper treatment would have prevented. She has been a featured speaker at various mental health organizations and has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, Guardian UK, News-Press, Ground Report, and the Orlando Sentinel. 

This article was originally posted as an editorial in the Orlando Sentinel.

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