National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Supported Employment: People with mental illness have been among the hardest hit when the recession undercut the job market. Supported employment services empower individuals affected by mental illness to develop skills, get jobs and succeed in the workplace. “Work is often one of the best tools for recovery,” Fitzpatrick added. Because supported employment is good for the employee, employer and the local economy, candidates need to know that these services are a win-win for their communities.

Mental Health Workforce Shortage: Lack of qualified mental health service providers unfortunately eclipses the availability of local services in many areas. The challenge is not only to recruit more workers, but also to provide adequate training in best practice treatment for serious mental illness. Mental health professionals need the skills necessary to deliver effective services to culturally diverse communities that are chronically underserved.

The shortage of professionals is drastic in rural communities, but limitations in personnel reduce the availability of specialty mental health services in all geographic areas. Even in large urban pockets around the country, people receiving Medicaid and Medicare benefits may have difficulty finding providers to treat them.

A recent Institute of Medicine report (2012) stated that the mental health personnel shortage has serious consequences for older Americans. With the over-65 population growing rapidly (expected to escalate from 40.3 million to 72.1 million between 2010-2030), this age group is also becoming more racially, ethnically and culturally diverse than ever before. The report notes that about one in five seniors experiences a mental health condition, often along with other medical illnesses, but there are not enough geriatric mental health and substance-abuse professionals to meet their unique health needs. That gap will continue to widen as the older adult population grows.

To meet the mental health needs of all populations, states should address the shortage by adding to the workforce professionals who are thoroughly trained in delivering mental health services to a diverse population with varying treatment needs. An adequate mental health workforce will be able to more effectively and efficiently deliver the services necessary to help Americans live well. Fortunately, this is an area where jobs need to be created, and that’s good news in this economy.

Candidates from all parties need to know the facts on mental illness in order to best serve the people they hope to represent in the future.

Medication: The right medication can be make all the difference for someone living with mental illness. Policies should promote an array of medications adequate to serve individualized needs. Because responses to psychiatric medication vary widely, people need to be able to work with their health care providers to to find the most effective treatment for themselves. Individualized access to medications can prevent costly crisis care and is a wise investment for public and private health coverage.

Research: Finally, effective treatment is strengthened through research and accountability. When states are required to collect and publish data on health care systems, the public benefits. Outcome-based care begins with standardized measures to compare and improve current care models. Mental health research lacks resources and attention compared to other medical fields. The investment in research into causes and treatment of mental illness will improve quality of care and create more efficient, cost-effective systems for states.

Local Implementation

The presidential race certainly attracts the most attention, but congressional, state and local primaries and elections are equally important to mental health. For example, on Election Day (Nov. 6, 2012), 468 U.S. Congressional seats will be up for election. The outcome could affect the majority balance in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Your representatives and senators give voice to voters’ concerns in federal legislation, and your members of Congress directly impact mental health policy for the nation.

PPACA is scheduled for full implementation in 2014, and many of the candidates chosen in this election cycle will oversee that transition. While PPACA is a federal law, it is up to state officials to determine how PPACA will provide coverage and care for its residents. Your vote will help determine who makes these decisions and how aware they are of our needs.

At last count, there were more than 87,500 local governing bodies throughout the United States, according to the U.S. Census of Governments. These city and county governments partner with community organizations to implement community-based mental health services. Local elected officials can make all the difference in establishing a framework for community health and making a range of services accessible. Members of these local government units, including school district officials, sheriffs and judges, influence how people living with mental illness are treated in educational settings, crisis response units and the justice system.

Partnerships that Last

There is much at stake in the weeks and months leading up to final count at election day. Campaigning gives candidates a chance to not only voice their ideas but to hear yours. Elected officials represent the entire population and need to know that mental health is a priority with their constituents. When voters speak up on an issue, candidates are likely to listen, especially during campaign season.

Candidates from all parties need to know the facts on mental illness in order to best serve the people they hope to represent in the future. The success of community-based care depends on partnerships among policy-makers, independent organizations and individuals. Connecting with candidates now lays the foundation for effective advocacy in the future.

Consider partnering with other organizations in your community to host candidate forums for federal, state and local candidates.

There is a lot at stake this election season, but NAMI advocates can embrace the opportunity to make a difference. It is important to connect with candidates and, more importantly, vote.

“We live in a democracy,” said Fitzpatrick. “People don’t always believe it, but every vote counts, particularly in close elections. By speaking out, NAMI voters influence other voters. We have more power than we realize—but only if we use it.”

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This article originally appeared in the fall edition of the Advocate. To read the rest of the articles, become a member today!