In the 1950s, when people were diagnosed with cancer, many chose to keep it a secret. It wasn’t something you discussed outside the family. And if you did, it was often referred to as “the C word.” Many brave individuals, family members and researchers fought that stigma so people could talk openly about cancer.
But it didn’t stop there. These leaders went a step further by advocating for investment in research. This led to an exponential increase in treatment options, early detection and screening. Thankfully, this investment translated into longer and more productive lives for those with cancer. Today, many more actually beat the disease.
The mental health community is on a similar journey. Previously spoken about in whispers, we are still fighting the stigma of mental illness, but there are signs of change. Our movement is growing, and more people are showing up and speaking up.
Millions of fans around the country were stunned last year to learn that prominent fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain died by suicide. Many people learned for the first time that the way a person acts does not always reflect the inner workings of their brain. Their deaths show how attaining professional success doesn’t shield someone from depression and suicide.
Many actors, entertainers and sports figures are beginning to talk about their mental health conditions and are urging others to join the movement. This has contributed to a shift in public attitudes around mental illness and suicide. The increased willingness to talk about mental health is a welcome change. But it is not enough.
Those with mental illness still face endless barriers to getting appropriate care. It’s time to push forward and translate the shift in attitudes into increased investments in research and treatment—the same way the cancer community did over 60 years ago. We need to make mental health and substance use treatment an integral part of all of healthcare.
Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go. Not only do we lag in investment, people with mental illness continue to face discrimination.
In March, a U.S. District Court ruled that one of our nation’s largest insurers denied mental healthcare based on guidelines that had no medical foundation and were specifically designed to reject payment for needed treatment.
Half of the nation’s counties have no mental health providers. Even where there are providers, far too many are out-of-network. In the U.S., most psychiatrists practice out-of-network, which makes mental health treatment expensive and out of reach for many. Wait times in emergency departments are excessive with little to no follow-up care and chronic bed shortages. The payment structure for all mental health services is broken, with demand far outweighing supply.
In the U.S., we need significant investment to raise awareness and increase the availability of mental healthcare screenings during primary-care visits. Nearly 60% of adults with a mental illness did not receive mental health services in the past year. We would find it unacceptable and unthinkable if more than half of adults with cancer did not receive treatment in the last year—yet this is the reality for people with mental illness.
Numerous reports have exposed the chronic underinvestment in mental health research, especially considering the length and severity of disability that mental illness can cause. The budget for the National Institute of Mental Health is far less than that of other institutes—even though mental illness affects 1 in 5 Americans and is often debilitating and life-threatening.
It’s time to move the dialogue to action and to enact concrete changes. More than 40 million adults in the U.S. face the day-to-day reality of having a mental health condition. This is a public health crisis that requires more attention and bipartisan support to improve access to care, raise awareness and fund mental health research.