Experts demand improved mental healthcare

By LISA CHUN   |   June 30, 2006 at 10:50 AM

WASHINGTON, June 30 (UPI) -- Mental-health experts demanded better public education and comprehensive healthcare for mental illness in a House hearing this week.

Kay Redfield Jamison, founder of UCLA's affective disorders clinic, said that while there have been great advancements in the study of mental illness, there is still a lack of concern.

"The effort to develop new treatments for severe mental illness and to prevent suicide seem to be remarkably unhurried," said Jamison. "Every seventeen minutes in America, someone commits suicide. Where is the public outrage? Where is the public concern?"

Jamison, who has bipolar disorder, said she became consumed with suicide in her senior year in high school. When she was 28 years old she took an intentional overdose of lithium.

Jamison said she was fortunate enough to have had the money to afford proper care and to have support from family and friends, but many people with mental illnesses are not so lucky.

With many Americans unable to afford treatment, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., said mental illness must be included in healthcare coverage, including Medicare. Companies such as IBM, AT&T and Pepsi Co. cover such disorders in their health plans and have benefited from it. Murphy said depression often leads to drops in employee attendance and output, costing employers money.

Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., agrees the cost of untreated mental disorders exceeds the cost of medical care.

"The costs of untreated mental illness are staggering including homelessness, substance abuse, criminal abuse, incarceration, unemployment and suicide," Deal said.

Murphy also said it was important for health coverage to include therapy instead of medication alone for mental illnesses.

"Anti-depressant medication change mood but they don't change your mind," Murphy said. "Psychotherapy performed by a qualified practitioner is also needed to properly treat patients."

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., said another problem with mental-health treatment is that many healthcare systems administer it incrementally.

"But denying patients coverage to psychotherapy by telling them that their mental health professional recommended a coursed treatment is unnecessary, and forcing those individuals to cope alone is exactly like putting a child with a broken limb back into the classroom with a pat on the back and a Band-Aid," Capps said.

Participants of the hearing agreed that another major problem with mental illnesses is the societal stigma surrounding it.

"Moreover the social and economic ramifications of being labeled mentally ill can be considerable and sometimes devastating," said Deal, chairman of the subcommittee.

Raymond DePaulo, director of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, called mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia the "cancer of the 21st century."

"Cancer was stigmatized, depression still is," said DePaulo.

DePaulo said the hopelessness that was associated with cancer proved to be wrong and with strong efforts and research, cancer treatments have dramatically improved over the years and the same could be true of mental illnesses now.

He said though there is hope for the future of mental-health advancements, recent cuts in funding only hinder progress. DePaulo said while his faculty is usually very stable, it recently lost many young investigators due to a lack of funding.

"The result is palpable and very visible," DePaulo said. "They are going to places that don't offer them the same kind of scientific opportunities but where they're sure of being funded."

Pete Earley, author of the book "CRAZY: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness," said it is also important to reform current civil-liberties laws dealing with mental healthcare.

Earley's son started to suffer from a mental illness during college. When Earley took him to a hospital during a psychotic episode, doctors refused help because under state law, patients could only admit themselves into professional care unless they were an imminent threat to themselves or others.

Though after Earley's son broke into someone's home to take a bubble bath, he was charged with breaking and entering. Earley said he was appalled that the government refused to help his son's disorder but would punish him for it.

Earley said many mentally ill individuals are sent to prison instead of treated properly because of outdated civil-liberty laws created when most of the mental-health system was atrocious.

"I live in one of the wealthiest counties (Fairfax) in America. It can take a person with a severe mental illness six months to get into a treatment program, 2.7 years to get a case manager, 17.5 years to get into subsidized housing," Earley said.

Earley said he is constantly worried that his son is not taking his medication and close to another breakdown.

"Expecting someone with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia to treat themselves is like asking someone who has two broken legs to run a marathon," said Earley.

Earley demanded "leadership that will enable Mike and other sons and daughters to get help and not be turned away by a doctor who says, 'Bring him back when he tries to kill himself or kill you.'"

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