BEFORE I really begin, let me make one personal recommendation to you: If you are going to get a disease — choose your organ carefully — because if you have heart failure, you can get a pacemaker; if you have pancreas failure, you can get an insulin pump; if you have kidney failure, you can get put on dialysis — but if you have brain failure, you can get put in jail. And I mean today, in America; right here in good old Chapel Hill.
Only for the diseases of the brain called mental illness are people arrested for their symptoms.
Can you imagine your child suffering from a disease — but it hasn’t killed him yet — then watching him being denied treatment because your insurance (and I quote) "only hospitalizes for matters of life and death"? Then after your child leaves the hospital, still with a deadly disease, you have to watch him get arrested for his symptoms.
I don’t have to imagine, I’ve been there. My child had a brain disorder. And he was insured as a minor, and I had insurance coverage — as a state employee.
With schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or any other mental illness which manifests itself in psychosis, you can be arrested (and people are, every day) for manifesting its symptoms — delusions, hallucinations, paranoia. Isn’t it punishment enough to lose your job, your home and your family, as many do when they are hospitalized? Wouldn't treatment be better for us all?
A bill before the U.S. Congress now, informally called the Mental Health Parity Act, would help do that. It would require mental illness be treated like other diseases by insurance companies — a bill the New York Times said "it looks as if Congress may be ready" to pass. Please note the word "may."
I have often said that I could convince anyone with either a heart or a brain that the government should do its part to insure that people with mental illness get early and effective treatment.
For those with a heart, I call for compassion to help those who cannot, by virtue of their diseases, help themselves. If government is to help anyone, it would be them.
For those with only a brain, I point out how much more expensive it is to support someone for a lifetime, than it is to treat the illness early, and how much more cost effective treatment centers are than jails and prisons, where many of those with severe mental illness are today — simply because they did not get appropriate treatment. And we will all be better off if people disabled by brain disorders have safe and decent places to live rather than being left untreated and homeless with begging and petty theft as their only means of support.
Mental health insurance parity is one step towards getting treatment to those with mental illness.
People with mental illness, just like people with any other illness, need to be treated so that their diseases don’t progress into lifetime disabilities. The health insurance system is one way we should do that. Currently, most health insurance policies do not cover mental illness like they do other illnesses. Because of what amounts to a system-wide insurance embargo on paying for treatment for mental illness, many episodes of mental illness go untreated until the individuals are so ill that they must be hospitalized — usually at great public expense.
Only an estimated 20% of children and adolescents with mental illnesses currently receive treatment. Because of this many lives are unnecessarily destroyed by these diseases.
Fixing this gap in coverage would not be expensive, and in the long run will save our society money as permanent disabilities and revolving door hospitalizations are prevented. The Congressional Budget Office estimates requiring coverage for mental illness will increase the average premium about 1% the cost of the current average benefit.
Beyond the simple issue of fairness to those struck by mental illness, this would be modest investment in the health of people of our society.
Email or call 1-800-614-2803 to send a message to ours senators, Richard Burr and Elizabeth Dole, and to our congressman, David Price, to express your views on mental health parity. Let them know you are a voter and leave your name, phone number and address, so there won't be any doubt. Your call or email could make a difference.
Gary D. Gaddy is friend and an advocate for those with mental illness who lives in Orange County, NC.
A version of this column was published in the Chapel Hill News on March 28, 2007. Copyright 2007 Gary D. Gaddy