June 21, 2017 – When you come across a tragedy that can be prevented, and you realize you can do something about it, you act.
I first became involved with AFSP as a member of the Charleston, South Carolina Out of the Darkness Walk committee. While I have the good fortune of not having been impacted by suicide personally, preventing suicide had become important to me. Working for the Institute of Psychiatry hospital at the Medical University of South Carolina, I saw 90 patients a day, many of whom were on active suicide watch: senior citizens, homeless adults, those addicted to drugs or alcohol, teens and even children as young as six. I felt the frustration of “the system” that did not seem to care. Access to care was limited by both the ability to pay for services, and the lack of state or private resources to provide these services.
So, I decided to apply my marketing and communication skills to create a better system. Hence, my focus at AFSP became advocacy. Attending the AFSP Advocacy Forum this year will be my fifth trip to Washington for the event. In the beginning, frankly I thought it hopeless that the fiscally-sensitive Congress would pass laws or appropriate funds to care for people who – to those without a good understanding of mental health – might be seen as weak. Yet despite my worries, our message that suicide was the tenth leading cause of death began to resonate throughout our country…especially when the dying were veterans and active military.
I learned many things from attending AFSP’s Advocacy Forum over the years. I learned that “a heart in the right place” is not enough. Washington is a complex labyrinth of odd bedfellows and ideology. Something I learned from our South Carolina delegation, particularly from then Representative Mick Mulvaney, now the director of the Office of Budget and Control, was that once you sell your cause, you have to show your wallet. How can your great program be funded?
I also learned that simply getting a law passed did not mean victory. Success is not just measured by law passage, or funding, but also by regulations. The Mental Health Parity law requiring insurance companies to cover mental health services on par with other benefits, which passed during the George W. Bush era in 2008, did not have the regulations needed to properly direct insurance companies until the second Obama administration.
I learned, too, that federal programs are likely to be turned over to states to manage. Hence, our relationship with the South Carolina Legislature has become instrumental in achieving the goals we seek. Medicaid expansion, insurance markets, funding for research and other considerations are now the province of local jurisdiction. That’s another reason to wake up tomorrow and learn the system, meet the leaders, and keep the needs of patients with mental health issues front and center. Attending AFSP’s Advocacy Forum is a great reminder each year that there is still work to be done.
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