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The Kennedy Forum Illinois: Mental health justice

Mental health is not merely a health or medical concern; it is very much a matter of human rights, dignity and social justice.”

United Nations General Assembly

The individual voice of mental illness took a stand at the fourth annual Kennedy Forum Illinois, held in Chicago on January 16 and 17, as high-profile speakers shared deeply personal stories related to their mental health struggles. A leading forum participant, Beacon Health Options (Beacon) joined these speakers in their quest to eradicate stigma.

Specifically, their stories centered around mental health equity, the forum’s 2018 theme. The Honorable Tom Dart, Sheriff, Cook County, Illinois articulated the forum’s theme in the most practical of terms:

“We would not rush a person suffering from a heart attack to the local jail. Why do we do that with someone suffering from mental illness?”

Preeminent mental health advocate Patrick Kennedy, and former Rhode Island representative, linked mental health justice to civil rights and social justice:

“We are learning in our nation right now that we are never done when it comes to civil rights and social justice … You must constantly be fighting because progress is not inevitable. It only happens when people stand up and demand progress.”

We would not rush a person suffering from a heart attack to the local jail. Why do we do that with someone suffering from mental illness?

Olympian Michael Phelps suggested that the quest for mental health justice lies in the sharing of experiences. Stating that he has enjoyed his life so much more after sharing his mental health journey, he said, “It is okay to not be okay”. Political adviser David Axelrod joined Phelps in validating the power of sharing. Talking about his father’s suicide in the 1970’s, Axelrod stated that he did not talk about it for 30 years but does so now to honor his father’s legacy and to help remove stigma around mental health.

Efforts supporting mental health justice

I participated in a special workshop entitled, “Advancing Justice: Pathways to Making Mental Health and Addiction Parity Reality” in which policymakers, health plans, regulators, attorneys and consumers discussed the implementation of the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. Attendees learned about upcoming federal regulatory activity and www.paritytrack.org, which tracks various parity-related state laws and regulations. I was also able to share the work Beacon has done with other payers related to ClearHealth Quality Institute’s efforts to create a private accreditation program whose goal is to provide insurers, benefit administrators and employers with a more detailed compliance roadmap.

However, it’s not all about policy. Consider the hands-on efforts in New York City. Receiving a 2018 Leadership Award, New York City First Lady, Chirlane McCray stated: “If one in five Americans struggle with a mental health condition, that means the other four are relatives, friends, and neighbors. We are all affected.”

Consequently, Beacon currently partners with the Mental Health Association of New York City to run NYC Well, which is part of First Lady McCray’s ThriveNYC effort. The program expands the capacity of a phone-based crisis/suicide prevention hotline; adds the ability to access resources via text messaging; and allows for follow-up calls or texts to ensure New Yorkers get the support that they need.

The conversations and efforts to ensure mental health justice must persist as the new year heralds important mental health challenges – most notably developing solutions to solve the opioid epidemic. Behavioral health, therefore, remains front-and-center with all key stakeholders – advocates, providers, insurers, policymakers – to ensure that all Americans remain on track to get the help they need. Beacon’s participation in the Kennedy Forum and ongoing parity accreditation efforts embodies our goal of providing thought leadership to key policymakers on improving the patient experience of care; improving the health of populations; and reducing the per capita cost of health care.

We look forward to fruitful conversations in the coming months.

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