Dear Madam President:
I am writing you in hopes of bringing to your attention a growing issue in the United States that directly affects me and millions of other adolescents and adults: mental illness.
On January 30, 2014, when I was thirteen years old, my parents rushed me to the ER because I was having numbness and tingling in my extremities, a common cardiac symptom. Early the next morning I was admitted to Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. Upon admission, I weighed just ninety-two pounds, I had a heart rate of about thirty beats per minute, my lips and nailbeds were blue, I had fur (lanugo) covering my back and arms, and I couldn't eat. I was diagnosed with anorexia. I was hospitalized for twelve days at an approximate cost of $90,000. This does not include the cost of the outpatient care I received afterwards or the psychiatric care I am still receiving. My family is extremely fortunate to have very good health insurance that covered and continues to cover my care. Not everyone is so fortunate.
According to recent data gathered by Mental Health America, the percentage of people in the United States who suffer from mental illness is among the highest in the world — up to 22% of adults and 11% of adolescents. Of those, less than half, only about 44%, received sufficient mental health care in 2015. The latest studies done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHA) show that since 2012, as rates of mental illness diagnoses have increased, rates of treatment have declined. Despite this concerning trend, there has not been an increase in mental health care spending nor any significant initiatives to make such care more accessible to those in need.
Although the Mental Health Parity Act was passed in 1996, it was riddled with loopholes that insurance companies have taken advantage of. For example, the parity law states that if an insurance company offers mental and behavioral health coverage, this coverage must be equal to (or better than) all other medical health coverage provided by that company. However, this only applies if the company has chosen to provide medical coverage. A survey done by SAMHA in 2012 revealed that the primary reason people diagnosed with a mental illness did not receive treatment was because they were unable to afford it. Many insured Americans do not understand that their policy may not cover the treatment of mental illness, a frightening reality for anyone facing a mental health crisis.
Mental health directly affects a person’s quality of life, ability to develop emotional connections, handle stressful or demanding situations, and make good decisions. Research done by the Rhode Island Physiological Society shows that an individual's ability to develop and utilize these skills affects how well they function in the workplace. Simply put, good mental health is good for business. Poor mental health directly interferes with an individual’s ability to work effectively. These losses in productivity add up. According to studies released in early 2016 by Paolo del Vecchio M.S.W, Director of SAMHA, decreased productivity due to poor employee mental health costs our economy about $105 billion dollars per year. Yet only 3% of all healthcare spending goes towards mental health. Even though a large percentage of our country’s gross domestic product is spent on health care (as stated by the Wall Street Journal), less than 5% is spent on the mental well being of our citizens. Not only is this a failure to take our population’s best interests into account, it is damaging to our economy.
In 2000, twenty-one year old Anna Westin from Chaska, MN committed suicide after a five-year struggle with Anorexia. She had been diagnosed at the age of sixteen. All of her doctors urged her and her family to seek treatment immediately; their insurance refused to cover any expenses and the family was unable to provide Anna with the intensive, residential care that she needed. In an interview for the PBS series Perfect Illusions, which focused on the dangers of undetected or untreated eating disorders, Anna’s mother, Kitty Westin, told the story of how their insurance company refused to cover Anna’s expenses. “The insurance company, who had never talked to Anna, had never seen her, didn't really know anything about her, said that it wasn't medically necessary, which is obscene. It makes me very, very angry. Anna had a disease they didn't want to even hear about.”
These are not a problems that will solve themselves. If action is not taken, the death toll from issues like eating disorders and suicide will continue to rise. I believe that some simple changes to our laws could help millions of people. According to the Eating Disorders Coalition, The Anna Westin Act of 2015 proposes three ways to help people who suffer from eating disorders. The first goal is to pull money from already existing healthcare funding to train healthcare professionals and educators to detect eating disorders and intervene early when symptoms arise.The act would clarify the existing mental health parity law regarding residential psychiatric treatment to reduce out-of-pocket costs for patients and their families. Finally, it would mandate the Federal Trade Commission to study and report the effect of using digital augmentation to alter the appearance of models in advertising. Passage of this act would be a tremendous step in the right direction. According the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders at least the thirty million people in the United States suffering from an eating disorder.
The prevalence of mental illness and the lack of access to sufficient, affordable mental health care poses a huge threat to our society. Ignoring his serious issue could have dire consequences. Your support of the Anna Westin Act could save the lives of countless millions of sufferers. Please be a voice for them.