Congresswoman Kristi Noem’s Weekly Column: Breaking Barriers to Mental Healthcare

noem press header kristi noem headshot May 21 2014Breaking Barriers to Mental Healthcare
By Rep. Kristi Noem

You often times don’t have to look far to find a family that’s been failed by our broken mental healthcare system – and with nearly 30,000 adults and about 9,000 children living with serious mental health conditions in South Dakota, it’s a challenge I’d guess most families can, to some degree, relate to.

As many know, our healthcare system isn’t adequately prepared to help those who face mental illness – especially chronic or severe mental illnesses. As a result, many are falling through the cracks, landing in a jail cell, homeless shelter, or worse, instead of a hospital bed.

The reasons for this are numerous. Some can’t afford the costs.  Others can’t find or easily get to a facility for help.  Others are fearful of what their friends or family may think.  In broadly bipartisan legislation passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month, we have worked to mitigate as many of these barriers as possible.

To date, the federal government’s approach to mental health has been a patchwork of outdated programs and ineffective policies that span across numerous federal agencies at the cost of about $130 billion annually.  At its core, the Helping Families with Mental Health Crisis Act, which I cosponsored, looks to streamline the system and refocus our efforts on providing efficient and effective care.

More specifically, this legislation breaks down barriers for families to work with healthcare providers, helping ensure they can be meaningful partners in caring for those with serious mental illnesses.  We also made advances in tele-psychiatry to better reach underserved and rural communities, and we offered more tools for suicide prevention.  Other provisions were included to fix the shortage of crisis mental health beds, improve the transition from one level of care to another, and even offer alternatives to institutionalization for those with serious mental illnesses.

I also worked closely with the bill’s author, psychologist and Pennsylvania Representative Tim Murphy, on several provisions aimed at helping tribal communities – even bringing him to South Dakota to meet with folks in Pine Ridge who are fighting a devastating suicide epidemic.  Because of our work, new provisions were included to help support and prioritize Native American suicide programs.

Today’s mental healthcare system is inefficient at best; at worst, it’s unable to intervene and seclude an individual who could cause harm to themselves or others.  Changes need to be made and made urgently.  This legislation offers the most significant reforms to our nation’s mental healthcare system that we’ve seen in decades.  It’s thoughtful, thorough and bipartisan, so I’m hopeful we can see it become law soon.

One more thing: if you or someone you love is facing a mental health crisis, I encourage you to call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).  This is a free and confidential, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year information service.  They can provide referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.  Please don’t wait to find help.