We can’t physically see it. The fear being stigmatized keeps us from talking about it. We don’t prioritize preventative treatment, because there have been barriers to accessing care. If you’ve never suffered from a mental illness, chances are someone close to you has.
I worked as a licensed mental health professional in Chesterfield County for more than 30 years. As Director of Emergency Services for the Chesterfield County Mental Health Department, I’ve seen firsthand our mental health crisis here in Virginia.
However hidden from the public view mental illness and drug addiction might be, when left untreated, patients frequently end up in the same place they would with other medical emergencies – in the emergency room. Even worse, people suffering from mental illness often end up in the criminal justice system. These crises have become so prevalent that it is now a significant part of the job for our local police officers, and other first responders.
I’m proud to say that Chesterfield County has been on the forefront on training first responders to assess and recognize the signs of mental illness, de-escalate those in crisis, and link people to appropriate support services. In partnership with Chesterfield Mental Health, I’ve worked with the Chesterfield Police Department for the last 15 years, training officers on how to recognize mental health issues and crisis situations. Law enforcement officers have the tools to respond safely, effectively and compassionately when encountering a person experiencing a mental illness. This approach often diverts people in crisis from the criminal justice system to more appropriate mental health services. But emergency rooms and law enforcement shouldn’t have to be the first stop for mental healthcare – it strains their already limited resources, and it’s hard on the patient.
Despite its shortcomings, the Affordable Care Act was an important first step because it required mental healthcare to finally be covered under health insurance plans as an essential benefit. Virginians can no longer be denied insurance because of pre-existing conditions, that include mental illness. Unfortunately, there are members of our General Assembly who are trying to roll back these important protections. This year, the General Assembly passed a bill that would create “catastrophic health plans” that would not cover mental healthcare – and with a deductible of up to $15,000, these catastrophic health plans often would not cover the cost of an emergency room visit. Fortunately, this legislation – that strips away essential healthcare coverage – was vetoed by the Governor.
We have to prioritize getting more patients access to the care they need, rather than reversing the progress that has already been made. Insurance coverage increases access and likelihood people will seek preventative care. Preventative care more cost effective in the long term, but it also keeps people from crisis situations that could involve out first responders.
Mental healthcare is healthcare. It’s time our Commonwealth prioritizes funding and access to these essential services.