The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 2, 2013

Our View: Mental health care stIll lies in shadows

The Free Press

— While other states are focusing their discussions post-Sandy Hook on gun control — including Minnesota with hearings next week — going virtually unnoticed by major headlines of news media is how Connecticut is handling the issue, and the advancement by U.S. Sen. Al Franken on mental health care improvements.

In the state where the deadly rampage took place, Connecticut is considering sweeping changes to its mental health system including forcing private insurers to offer more mental health coverage — long overdue from the federal government — and screening every school child for emotional or psychological problems.

Franken also took last week to discuss his effort to increase students’ access to mental health care in our nation’s schools and pointing out that Minnesota is 48th in the country in ratio of students to mental health counselors, 780 to one.

Jennifer Maksel, the mother of a 7-year-old Sandy Hook survivor, testified in Connecticut that it was difficult getting local schools and the hospital to treat her 12-year-old son who had Asperger’s Syndrome, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. “I have been fighting to get him services for years,” Ms. Maksel said. “He is 12 years old. But if I don’t get him social skills to prepare him (for) when (he) is 18, what am I going to do?”

And even if you have insurance, it’s still difficult. Patricia Rehmer, Connecticut’s commissioner of Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, testified that “The bigger gaps, frankly, are for those individuals with private insurance. “I do know that while individuals with private insurance have limited access to inpatient services, outpatient services and medications, the additional services that are critical to an individual’s recovery are oftentimes not covered by health-insurance policies.”

This despite the heavy lifting by the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, who pushed a federal law to force insurance companies to offer mental-health coverage services comparable with the coverage they provide for medical services. These mental-health parity laws aren’t adequately enforced because for more than four years the federal government has yet to define the parameters.

This national fixation on guns is diverting much needed attention to the causes of gun violence.

Acknowledging Minnesota legislators’ fixation on the gun answer, Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said Friday that legislators should focus more on mental health issues. “I think we’re complicit in the violence if we don’t intervene,” she said. She wants additional funding for mental health services in schools, better training for professionals and more help for adolescents in their first psychotic episode.

We applaud Connecticut, Franken and Sheran for wanting to focus on mental health as a major focus for change. Both are valiantly trying to raise awareness of the inadequacy of the system even after Wellstone’s parity law continues to languish at the federal level — a fact Connecticut cites as a problem and one which still gets short shrift in Wellstone’s home state.

Experts have pleaded for years that we need to cut down drastically the number of people who go undiagnosed or untreated. “Part of lowering those barriers (to access) is making mental health services more widely available,” said Carolyn Drazinic, president-elect of Connecticut Psychiatric Society. Franken did caution that “I in no way want to stigmatize mental illness because the vast, vast, vast majority of people with mental illness are no more violent than the general population.”

No, but guns get the bigger headlines while the general population gets much better treatment than do those suffering from mental illness. And that’s a travesty that needs correction.