McConnell, legislature can OK bills to improve mental-health care

Mental illness impacts millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians, but is largely undiagnosed and untreated. As citizens of the commonwealth, we must hold our federal and state leaders accountable so they can fix gaps in the mental healthcare system.

With a basic knowledge of mental illness, who it impacts and the current inadequacies of treatment, Congress and the Kentucky General Assembly can enact legislation to correct these problems.

Severe and persistent mental illnesses are brain disorders. They may have environmental triggers, but they are involuntary and impact all races, genders and socioeconomic levels. They include depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.

They are treatable through a combination of therapy, medications and other outpatient approaches.

Mental illness is an often misunderstood, uncomfortable topic. For this reason, it is not at the forefront of public debate. However, mental-health statistics are sobering and should be a call to action for health-care advocates and elected officials.

Roughly 19 million Americans and 260,000 Kentuckians suffer from severe mental illnesses. Over half of these people received no mental health treatment in the last year (53 percent untreated in Kentucky).

For those who do receive treatment, most of it is administered by jails and prisons that are ill-equipped to provide health-care services.

One of the main reasons for under-treatment is the lack of early detection. The average delay from the first symptoms of psychosis to treatment is 74 weeks. By comparison, it takes about seven weeks in the United Kingdom. The results of late detection and under-treatment are costly and often tragic.

Most people are not a direct threat to others, but can be a threat to themselves. Suicide and suicide attempts are almost always the result of untreated or under-treated mental illness.

Over 40,000 Americans die from suicide every year and it is the second-leading cause of death among young people age 15-24.

In Kentucky, we lost 727 people to suicide in 2014, well above the national average.

These outcomes are unacceptable and our elected officials can bring about change.

The U.S. Senate has a unique opportunity to improve mental-health care by passing Senate Bill 2680, the Mental Health Reform Act of 2016. It would combat suicide in our schools and communities and increase the number of mental-health professionals — allowing for access to mental health care nationwide — especially in rural areas where it is badly needed.

Perhaps most importantly, it would promote early intervention, allowing patients to get the treatment they need as soon as possible. The legislation passed a Senate committee last month but cannot come before the entire Senate without Kentucky Sen. and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell bringing it to a vote. It is our duty as his constituents to urge him to do so.

At the state level, the General Assembly missed an opportunity in the 2016 session to help families get treatment for loved ones. Tim’s Law, a bill designed to steer people with the worst symptoms of mental illness towards evidence-based outpatient treatment programs instead of inpatient hospitals and jails, passed the House 96-0 only to wither and die in the Senate.

Mental-health advocates hope to bring Tim’s Law back in 2017. It had great momentum and bipartisan support, and will have a better chance of passage next year.

Our policymakers should help people with mental illness obtain access to the treatment they need. Bringing S 2680 to a vote in the U.S. Senate and then passing Tim’s Law in Kentucky would be two giant steps in the right direction.

Michael Gray is advocacy coordinator for NAMI Kentucky - The National Alliance on Mental Illness.