Rock Doc column: Mental health gaining equal standing

By E. Kirsten Peters, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences

Peters-e-k-2010-80PULLMAN, Wash. – When I was a kid, Jimmy Carter was in the White House. His wife, Rosalynn, was quite an active first lady. She sat in on official meetings held by her husband and was said to be one of his closest advisors.

Many first ladies have used the position to promote a cause. One of the things that most interested Rosalynn Carter was mental health research and treatment. She has remained active in promoting those areas since leaving the White House.

So it was fitting when U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently addressed the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy in Atlanta. Sebelius announced new federal rules that will beef up the 2008 mental health equity law.

Back in 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. The basic notion behind that law is that doctors – and insurance companies – should treat mental illness as they do physical illness. In other words, it shouldn’t matter whether you have fallen on the ice or have fallen into depression.

What’s new about a law signed in 2008, you might ask? Although the law has been on the books for a while, it has rarely been enforced.

“Up to now, the law has not been complied with. Companies have only sort of adhered to it,” said Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman. Lieberman is head of the American Psychiatric Association, and he spoke about the law in an interview with CNN.

The new rules Sebelius announced will require private insurers to make similar co-payment charges to patients whether the problem they have is one of physical or mental health.

That could have real impact. Sebelius pointed out that twice as many Americans die from suicide as from homicide. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 25 percent of Americans experience a diagnosable mental disorder each year.

The 2008 law, “combined with the Affordable Care Act, will expand and protect behavioral health benefits for more than 62 million Americans,” Sebelius said, as reported by CNN.

But it’s certainly not all peaches and cream for people suffering from mental illness.

“The not-so-good news is, you are eligible for treatment now; but often the services are not available,” said Carolyn Reinarch Wolf, a lawyer whose specialty is cases related to mental illness.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, there are not enough psychiatrists in the nation to treat the people already seeking treatment. To be sure, medical research into mental health maladies is ongoing, but the number of medical students choosing to specialize in psychiatry has been going down. And most psychiatrists are age 55 or older, with many soon to retire.

Bit by bit, the stigma associated with psychiatric maladies is lessening and research is leading to more and better treatments. At least from where I stand, leaders like Rosalynn Carter deserve credit for working throughout their lives to help make such progress possible.


Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.