After the Mental Health Parity Act’s passage in 1996, and after many attempts to strengthen legislation to enforce the act’s purpose, an epidemic remains as Americans continue to face a lack of access to mental and behavioral health care services and addiction treatment.
Former first lady Mrs. Rosalynn Carter has long been a vocal advocate for parity and improving the lives of people living with mental health disorders. She created Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism in 1996 to increase effective and accurate reporting on behavioral health issues. Journalists awarded The Carter Center’s Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism (RCJF) have reported effectively and accurately on mental health and have independently covered the lack of access to mental health services and insurance coverage.
Yet 23 years after the Mental Health Parity Act was passed, after the fellowships were founded and after many attempts to strengthen legislation, personal accounts of the lack of access continue to emerge. Insurance companies deny mental health care coverage requests; families go bankrupt paying for services; people die by suicide, more are living on the streets or in jail because they can’t get the help they need.
Even after the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act passed in 2008 (which Mrs. Carter played a key role in passing) and the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, communities remain in crisis despite Federal laws designed to give them aid. The crisis has become even more glaring with the COVID-19 pandemic as people living with mental health disorders face challenges of crisis proportions with isolation, anxiety, insomnia and suicidal ideation while insurance companies balk at covering telehealth services. Mental illness is expected to be the next wave of the pandemic, one epidemiologist noted.
As a component of the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program plan to reform policy related to behavioral health coverage, the Center is developing a collaborative of multiple major newsrooms across the country. This group of reporters and editors will take a deeper look at the state of mental health insurance coverage in their areas from an investigative and solutions journalism standpoint. The need for a concerted effort like this one is greater than ever to ensure access to treatment for mental illness and addictive disorders. It’s no longer enough to simply shine a light on the issue. We must merge vision with strategy, empathy with viable solutions, and the power of the pen with real progress. Lives depend on it.