Mental illness affects an estimated 44 million Americans every year. But less than half of them get the help they need. In fact, it takes on average 8-10 years for people to get treatment for mental illness in the US. But access to mental health care is a human right. In fact, it’s enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
The UDHR is now over 70 years old. And thankfully, over the last century, we’ve come a long way in how we treat, talk about, and tackle mental illness. A revolution in psychology, psychiatry, and policy has put an end to the most inhumane and abusive treatment of those with mental illnesses. But even today, millions of Americans still suffer without access to mental health care every year.
Mental health care access: the facts
Today, there are effective, science-based treatments for many of the most common mental illnesses. Psychotherapy, medication, and other supports can help people recover from mental illness and live full lives. So why are people still not getting help?
Here in the US, there are still some significant barriers to accessing mental health care. Some of the most significant issues are:
Despite recent changes to the law, finances still stop many people from accessing mental health care. The Affordable Care Act (2016) and the Mental Health Parity Act (1996) forced insurance providers to offer the same coverage for mental health conditions as they do for physical health conditions.
But that doesn’t mean mental health care is now accessible to everyone. While the Affordable Care Act helped millions of Americans still can’t afford medical insurance. And those that do face high premiums, co-pays, or deductibles that incentivize them not to seek help for mental health conditions
We’ve come a long way, yes, but there’s still a long way to go. Stigma around mental health conditions still exists – and it stops people from getting care. Shame and silence around mental illness also mean that people don’t always recognize mental illness in themselves or others. It also means people are more likely to suffer in silence, rather than ask for help.
And stigma affects some communities more than others. For example, only 31% of black Americans with a mental health condition got treatment, compared to 48% of white Americans – partly due to stigma and a lack of understanding of mental illness in black communities.
3. Criminalization of mental illness
During a mental health crisis, you’re more likely to encounter the police than medical help. In fact, over 30% of women (and 15% of men) in jails have a serious mental health condition. And while they’re in prison, they rarely get treatment or support. In fact, their treatment in prison tends to make their mental health worse, rather than better.
But the truth is that people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. Better early intervention, community support, and treatment options need to be available so that people with mental illnesses are less likely to become involved in the justice system – and so they can access appropriate treatment.
Advocating for access to mental health care
Across the US, there are lots of national, state, and local organizations fighting for mental health care rights and equal access. They lobby, campaign, and fundraise to change public policy to ensure all Americans can access appropriate mental health treatment when they need it. If you want to know more about the issues or you want to get involved in fighting for mental health care access, these organizations are a great place to start.
Mental Health America (MHA)
Mental Health America was founded in 1909 and is one of the leading non-profits fighting for the needs of people with mental illnesses. They advocate for prevention, early intervention, and integrated care services that help people work towards recovery. MHA provides education and outreach tools for the general public. And they advocate changing federal and state policies to improve mental health care.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
NAMI is a grassroots organization that started in 1979 in a small group of families and has become one of the most prominent groups advocating for mental health care in the US. They run educational programs tailored to specific groups, help people find and understand the treatment, and have several public policy campaigns that you can support through their Action Centre.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
The NIMH is the federal body that oversees all research on mental illness and mental health. They fund and carry out research into treatments for mental health. They also collect and share an enormous amount of information related to mental illness, and produce educational and awareness-raising resources that anyone can use or share to help advocate for mental health care.
Project Semicolon believes suicide is preventable, and work to reduce suicide by providing information and connection. They provide information for people worried about their mental health, including teenagers, and connect people with the support they need. They also share compelling stories from real people affected by mental illness and suicide, to help people talk more openly and reduce stigma around mental health.
What can you do to help?
If you’re passionate about mental health care and believe that everyone deserves equal access to care, there are lots of ways you can help:
Write to your lawmakers
Write to your local or state legislators to show your support for current legislation. You can sign up for NAMI’s mailing list to receive alerts about bills that are being considered. They’re active on a state and federal level, and even have a tool to help you find your legislators so you can take action
Use your vote
Vote for mental health. If mental health matters to you, use your vote wisely! Research candidates in local and federal elections, and find out what they will do for mental health care. You can also help others use their vote by talking about issues related to mental health and why they matter so much to you
Share your story
If mental illness has affected you or your family, your account can be a powerful tool in changing minds and policies. Consider sharing your story in your community to encourage people to take action. You can also share your story more widely through Project Semicolon and NAMI to help their broader advocacy efforts.
Donate your time or money
Volunteering or donating to an organization that’s fighting for mental health care access is a meaningful way you can make a difference. Non-profits know the issues and have the tools to advocate effectively for change. Whether you choose to support a national organization or a local grassroots charity, your time and money will help them move closer to mental health care access for all.
Join the fight for mental health care rights
Mental health care is a human right. And while Americans are being denied mental health care, their human rights are being violated. So if you believe everyone deserves the right mental health care when they need it, speak up today. Whether it’s in your family, workplace, online, or lawmakers, your voice can make a real difference in the fight to make mental health care truly accessible.