Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mental Health Care Disparity

A few weeks ago, the Arizona tragedy renewed calls to tone down heated political rhetoric. Standing by previous arguments in favor of this action, the shooting also opened up for debate the way our country invests in mental health services. While we do not yet know whether the shooter suffered from schizophrenia or another illness, it's time that mental health takes its place on the national agenda.
Many argue against investments in these services by saying it is a private problem. Clearly it is a struggle that individuals deal with in their own way. However, tragedies like the one in Arizona and across the country demonstrate why we must take the problem seriously. Many public problems rise from mental health diseases, such is decreased productivity at work, lower participation in civil society, and in some cases even tragic occurrences like suicide, self-injury, or crime. It is an obvious investment if we are able to address these problems and prevent the negative societal effects that are attributed to mental illnesses.
Others argue that mental health is not a defined science, or that it is less important than other investments we must make. It is true that we cannot devote all our resources to the issue of mental illness, just as we could not to any other program. However, investing in projects that pay for themselves or even beyond the original investment are the types of spending we should engage in. The economic and societal benefits make mental health a top-notch investment. Envision the innovation and work potential that one fewer case of a mental health disorder could produce. A man or woman who cannot go to work, start their own business, or take care of their own family could then contribute to society after receiving the necessary services. Even if we do not entirely understand mental health treatment, the investment in alleviating these problems is well worth the initial cost.
Like other government health programs, services should be offered to those who most need them and cannot afford them otherwise. An increase in funding for mental health services would begin to eliminate the disparity between physical services and mental services, not just in the government health care system, but our overall health industry. Mental health is a service that is unaffordable for many Americans (despite the demand), rising partially from its lower availability (supply). With a substantial portion of the population exhibiting symptoms of mental health diseases, it is an investment we must make for the common good.
There are others who say that we cannot afford government funding for mental health services at this time. It is true that our budget crisis is beyond comprehension for most Americans (and especially for our politicians). But by diverting funding from wasteful programs into a meaningful attempt at reducing mental illnesses, the investment will pay off in increased economic and social output and a lower risk of tragedies like the one in Arizona.
These are seriously trying economic and political times, and any major investments should not be taken lightly. However, the investment in mental health offers clear returns for the money. This is not meant to outline a system of health care; that debate is taking place in Washington already. Rather, we need to enter into the political agenda a serious discussion about how we care for those with mental illness and begin to tackle a serious problem facing our nation today.

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