Our Messed-Up Mental Health Care

System long in need of repair, reform — so a new adminstration brings new hope

It’s hard to imagine a situation worse than the current opioid crisis. More than 28,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2014 alone — more than any other year on record and almost triple the number of deaths in 2001. People who want help can’t get it when they need it most.

“There are not enough seats in outpatient treatment programs or beds in residential treatment programs to give care to people who want it,” said Dr. Constance Scharff, Ph.D., director of addiction research at Cliffside Malibu treatment center in Malibu, California. “There are wait times of three or four months — months to get care. People overdose and die in that period of time. We have to get a lot more opportunities for individuals to receive treatment.”

“There are wait times of three or four months to get care. People overdose and die in that time,” said one specialist.

She is correct — there have been nowhere near enough resources allocated to the epidemic of drug use and abuse. Depression and suicides the past few years have also been rising at an alarming rate — yet little has been done to invest in or improve access to mental health care in America.

The only piece of legislation dedicated to this area from Congress in the last year was the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), which President Obama signed into law last July. It was long overdue and only partially funded.

Key provisions from the bill are part of a $6.3 billion health care package moving through Congress this week. The 21st Century Cures Act passed through the House late Wednesday, if approved as well by the Senate and signed into law, $1 billion of the approved funds will be dedicated over the next two years for prevention and treatment of opioid addiction.

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The author of the mental health bill, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.), is a psychologist who treats patients with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Murphy said that among the changes coming, states will be urged to provide early intervention for psychosis, a treatment hailed as one of the most promising mental health developments in decades, Kaiser Health News reported.

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Americans might hope that any change that arrives with the new administration will be an improvement.

At a New Hampshire rally in October, Donald Trump praised CARA, saying, “This legislation is an important step in the right direction.” Among his promised reforms are expanding drug courts and mandated treatments for people with disorders, making Narcan available to first responders, changing the Medicaid policies that make it difficult to receive inpatient care — and increasing the availability of drug-assisted treatment centers.

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Trump also has pledged to reduce costs so that people can go to the doctor — including psychiatrists — when they need help. And it’s a change that is desperately needed.

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