Last month, I was fortunate to be able to attend the 25th annual Conference of the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health in Washington, D.C.  Once again this year, November 18th, Policy Day, was the highlight of my conference experience.  This is a day where parents and youth, Board members, directors and staff of family support organizations and other conferees from across the United States join together to advocate for children’s mental health on Capitol Hill.  We spent the morning being updated on key legislation and shaping our advocacy strategies and messages, before heading off after lunch to meet with our Congressmen and women and/or their representatives.

On Policy Day, our focus was drawn to several bills introduced in Congress last year. Among them is, perhaps, one of the most controversial: H.R. 3717, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act which was proposed by Republican Congressman Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania. The bill would direct federal funding to state Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) programs. The bill received 90 bipartisan co-sponsors, among them Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA 7) and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA 3).

Much has been discussed and will continue to be debated about laws designed to compel those with serious mental illness into treatment. Many parents are speaking out in favor of such laws, while there are also many people speaking out against them.

At this year’s King County Mental Health and Substance Abuse Legislative Forum, Jim Volendroff, the new Division Director, King County Mental Health and Chemical Abuse Dependency Services,  affirmed,  “We recognize that sometimes circumstances require that individuals with behavioral health disorders, for their safety and the safety of the community, may need to be involuntarily treated.   I am living proof that treatment need not be voluntary to be successful.” Vollendroff went on to say that prevention works, treatment is effective and people recover. “The behavioral health system in our State is rapidly changing. We have an obligation to assure that these changes are implemented with measured care and consideration for the people that we serve, constantly asking ourselves what is in the best interest of the families and the individuals that we serve.” He shared some of his own story.  “As an adolescent, I had my own struggles with depression and anxiety and have experienced involuntary treatment which saved my life.”

Yet, there are many who believe that involuntary treatment will only serve to destroy patients’ civil rights, discourage them from seeking help voluntarily, and further stigmatize mental illness.

One thing is certain – our Washington’s legislature and Congress will shape the publicly funded mental health system for decades, no matter which side of the debate we may find ourselves on.  It is time for us to learn more about the issues surrounding H.R. 3717 , if reintroduced, and about other key legislation. It’s time for us to flex our advocacy muscles on all levels of government!

Perhaps, as focus increases on mental health and substance abuse integration into the health care system, it is also time for us to challenge health care providers’ point of view on mental illness.  The medical community continues to place mental disorders in the category of “behavioral” illnesses, separating that category from physical illnesses.  Law requires the medical community to treat physical brain injuries, dementia, autism and diseases like Alzheimers. However, doctors must first have the patients’ permission to treat a behavioral illness when encountering paranoia or disorientation and confusion present in a psychotic episode.

Please share your comments and insights with us by emailing info(@)guidedpathways.org. Mark your 2015 calendar for March 23rd and plan to join GPS in Olympia to let your voice be heard!

 

Susan Millender and Hunday Sylvester in DC.

Guided Pathways Board of Director’s youth representative Hunday Sylvester and Executive Director Susan Millender met with Congresswoman Patty Murray’s representatives and representatives of Congressman Adam Smith on November 18th in Washington, D.C. during Policy Day at the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health 25th Annual Conference.