Mental Health and the Call for Single-Payer Healthcare

By Isobel Wohl, Healthcare for the 99% Working Group, Occupy Wall Street –

Join Healthcare for the 99% in recognizing Mental Health Awareness Month this May. Mental health is an integral part of overall health, and its prevalence and severity are yet another reason to demand single-payer healthcare. About one in six adults lives with a disorder of the brain such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. The pain caused by mental illness radiates even further, through family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and more, into the fabric of our society. Mental health is also a key issue for our veterans, many of whom return home with PTSD caused by violence seen and experienced in combat. The pervasiveness of mental illness calls for a single-payer healthcare system, as such a system would finance mental healthcare for many of those who cannot afford it on their own.

So if one in six adults lives with a mental illness, why don’t we all know a lot of mentally ill people? You do. However, stigma prohibits many people from speaking openly about their mental health problems. Our language is riddled with offensive terminology (“schizo”, etc). Incorrect ideas about mental illness abound, such as the idea that mentally ill people are obviously strange or abnormal, or that mentally ill people will never recover from their illnesses.

Contrary to popular belief, some mental illnesses do in fact go away with treatment, and those who do have lifelong illnesses can still live extremely normal lives. However, this requires treatment, generally a combination of medication and therapy, and that requires insurance and money. Mental illness left untreated often leads to poverty and eventually to homelessness. When people cannot get out of bed or perform daily activities, they soon end up out of work, and this can snowball into homelessness and abject poverty. All of this can be prevented by treatment of the mental illness. However, therapy can cost two hundred dollars a session or more, and even good insurance often covers only 12 sessions a year. This is absolutely inadequate, and yet further sessions are often prohibitively expensive. Add to that the cost of medication, which drug companies drive up as much as possible by patenting their drugs so that no generic form is made, causing some drugs to cost as much as $8 per pill without insurance, or when insurance companies refuse to pay. Additionally, since in American society health insurance is tied to jobs, when one loses one’s job one loses health insurance as well, compounding the problem: exactly when the mental health treatment is most needed, all funding for it is taken away. It’s simple: some people can afford treatment and can lead relatively normal, healthy lives, and others who cannot afford treatment get sicker and sicker as society turns away.

It has also been established that poverty and homelessness can themselves lead to mental health problems, as the impoverished and homeless face factors the rest of us don’t. The stress of having many unpaid bills or not having food or shelter, as well as a lack of security for the future, can be the catalyst for a mental illness, or can exacerbate an existing one. The homeless are also far more likely to be victims of crime and trauma. The poor and the homeless generally do not have the money for early treatment that can stop the disorder from becoming severe (or for any treatment at all).

When mental illness becomes severe, with a person of any socioeconomic class, suicide is always a concern. A death by suicide is always a tragedy, yet becomes even more tragic when one realizes how preventable these deaths are. Ninety percent of those who die by suicide have a psychiatric illness that is not only diagnosable, but also treatable. But if people are denied the means to treat their mental health problems, they are often quite literally being left to die.

America needs single-payer healthcare. It will ensure that all of the mentally ill get the treatment they deserve and that they can live normal, successful lives. Insurance companies must stop letting people fall through the cracks by refusing to provide adequate mental health benefits. When single-payer healthcare becomes a reality, the mentally ill will have the support and resources to live the fruitful and happy lives they were meant to live.