By Rep. Kristi Noem
Sometimes the most difficult challenges to deal with are the ones a person can’t see. Mental illness falls into that category. While about one in five American adults experiences mental illness throughout their lives, our health care system isn’t adequately prepared to help. As a result, too many people are falling through the cracks, and instead of landing in a hospital bed, they are landing in a jail cell, a homeless shelter, or worse.
This February, I was honored to receive the Outstanding Leadership Award from the American Psychological Association for my work in this area, and specifically, for a bill I introduced with Rep. Jan Schakowsky called the Medicare Mental Health Access Act.
For more than a half-century, our country has made sure seniors have access to the care they need to treat virtually any physical disease that could possible afflict them. That care has meant we get to spend more time with our parents and grandparents – even our great-grandparents. In fact, a 65-year-old woman on Medicare today will live 20 percent longer than her counterpart in 1960, due at least in part to the benefits she receives from Medicare.
But for the last 50 years, the role of mental health professionals in the spectrum of care has been marginalized – even though the anxiety and depression that are common in older populations can increase their susceptibility to physical disorders. Our minds and bodies work as one. Both need to be healthy and both need to be cared for.
My Medicare Mental Health Access Act will tear down barriers to mental health care for older Americans and give seniors more freedom and choice when it comes to how they are cared for.
This is just one piece of the puzzle, however. Mental health concerns know no boundaries – not age, not race, not gender. In South Dakota, we are facing a heartbreaking suicide epidemic on Native American reservations. Around two dozen young people have lost their lives to suicide in the last year or so – and scores more have attempted it. This cycle of hopelessness needs to end. We must bring quality mental health care into areas like this.
In the next few months, Congress is expected to debate the Helping Families with Mental Health Crisis Act. If this bill is enacted, mental health laws would finally be brought into the modern era. We would better empower parents and caregivers. We would extend our reach into underserved and rural populations. We would improve the transition from one level of care to another. And we would make more tools available to prevent suicides in this country. Acting on this legislation is critical, which is why I am so proud to be one of the bill’s cosponsors.
Mental illnesses can often go unseen – at least by the outside world. With stronger legislation in place, I’m hopeful these illnesses won’t have to go untreated.