JFK’s final act worth remembering, repeating

Dear Editor:

In a speech to Congress fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy proposed “…a national mental health program to assist in the inauguration of a wholly new emphasis and approach to care for the mentally ill…Central to a new mental health program is comprehensive community care.”

Later that year in 1963, Congress passed the Community Mental Health Act to provide federal funding for community mental health centers and research facilities devoted to research in and treatment of mental retardation. It was the last legislation President Kennedy signed into law before his assassination.

For people in Central Michigan with mental illness, JFK’s final legislation ended the nightmare of being “warehoused” in secluded hospitals and forgotten institutions. The law opened the door to a new era of recovery and the hope of moving back into their communities. Since then organizations like Community Mental Health for Central Michigan have been helping people recover from mental illness and live full lives.

As legislators today in Michigan look for ways to strengthen the nation’s mental health system in the wake of Newtown and other tragedies, they should remember this landmark law passed half a century ago. The legislation set the stage for an entirely new approach to recovery in the community, one marked by continually evolving care and treatment for Americans with mental illnesses and addictions.

Unfortunately, even with the renewed energy in the U.S. Congress to bolster mental health services, when money is tight this is often an area where cuts are made. More than $4.3 billion has been cut from state mental health budgets nationwide since 2009, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.

The state budget cuts have closed the doors to hundreds of treatment centers nationwide, forced the layoffs of case managers and reduced subsidies for outpatient counseling, medications and family support services. With more than 4,000 beds in psychiatric hospitals no longer available, there are long delays in accessing mental health services.

To make matters worse, as mental health resources in states were being whittled down, the need for services has been skyrocketing in the last three years. Demand for community-based services have spiked by 56 percent in recent years.

Legislators need to understand that cutting funding for mental health care will only be more costly in the long run.  Withdrawing community-based supports for some of the most vulnerable people in American society typically results in tragic and costly outcomes.

People who need mental health services do not magically disappear when funding is cut. Without adequate treatment, people with mental illness end up homeless, in jail, or in hospital emergency rooms, all of which will end up costing taxpayers more eventually.

Michigan legislators can do something this year to live up to the legacy of JFK’s final bill. Our Congress and Senators can support the Excellence in Mental Health Act (S. 264), legislation that would establish national standards of care and increased accountability for mental health and addictions services provided by qualified organizations, to be designated as Federally Qualified Behavioral Health Centers. The act would help these centers acquire the resources and skilled staff that people with mental illness and addictions deserve and need to get better.

Members of today’s 113th Congress searching for ways to improve our nation’s mental health services can learn from members of the 88th Congress who passed JFK’s historic mental health legislation. With a stronger community behavioral health safety net, people in need of services will have access to care and we will see healthier communities.

You are invited to hear Representative Patrick Kennedy speak about continuing his uncle’s mission for comprehensive community mental health care.   Representative Kennedy, the son of the late Edward “Ted” Kennedy, will be at the Comfort Inn and Conference Center in Mt. Pleasant on Thursday, May 30, 2013 starting at 5:30pm.  This event will include a dinner and tickets are available at www.cmhcm.org.

Julia Rookard

Mt. Pleasant

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