Opinion
9:34 am
Mon December 23, 2013

An effort to help the mentally ill

Lessenberry commentary for 12/23/13

My guess is that we think too much about football and not enough about mental illness, especially perhaps at holiday season.

But the fact is that millions of us are trapped in our own private hells. According to a report last year from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association, about one in every five Americans suffer from some sort of mental illness. For 5% of us, the suffering is severe.

The association estimated that more than eleven million adults suffered from severe mental illness in one recent year. Nearly nine million had serious thoughts of suicide, and a million actually tried to kill themselves. Yet we tend to take insufficient notice of the mentally ill, at least until someone walks into a school and begins shooting.

Mental illness is no respecter of class, persons or intelligence.  CBS newsman Mike Wallace, whose career began in Michigan, told me that for years he battled depression and suicidal urges every day.

Fortunately, there are people who are trying to do something about this. For months, Senator Debbie Stabenow has been firmly pushing a bill called the Excellence in Mental Health Act, which she jointly sponsored with a Republican congressman from Missouri.

The bill would, for the first time, give certified community health centers the resources they need to treat mental illness just as they do physical illness. That includes, according to the senator, round-the-clock crisis care, treating the whole person instead of their separate problems, and expanded support for families. Earlier this month, the bill passed a major hurdle when the Senate Finance Committee sent it on for a vote.

That especially pleased Tom Watkins, a former Michigan superintendent of schools, who a few months ago took on a new role running an agency in transition, the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. Watkins is no stranger to mental health issues. He was director of the state department of mental health in the late 1980's, under former governor Jim Blanchard. At the time, he was known for his attempts to focus on family issues.

Over lunch the other day, he told me he might not have been interested in this job if the position had remained part of Wayne County government. But it is now becoming a fully independent authority with its own board. Watkins told me they currently provide mental health services to 74,000 people. He also acknowledged that even more Wayne residents could use help, if they could get the funding.

They are apt to be serving more clients in any event, thanks to the Medicaid expansion that soon will kick in, plus the rolling out of the Affordable Care Act. “I really welcome both things. This is necessary and exciting,” Watkins said.

One of his first steps, was to issue a new ethics code, emphasizing the need to put people first. It begins, “We exist to serve and support individuals with mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance use disorders.”

Watkins told me: “Doing business as usual will not benefit the people we have a responsibility to serve.” That’s probably a good motto for all of government, and maybe all of us as well.  

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.