Congressmen highlight challenges of mental illness, substance abuse

3 min read

In 2008, 54 million Americans suffered with mental illness; 35,000 Americans committed suicide due to untreated depression; and 180,000 people died as a direct result of an untreated addiction. Congressmen Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) and Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) spoke at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Monday (March 2) on the truths and realities of mental illness and addiction in America.

Both men have personal experience with addiction — Ramstad is a recovering alcoholic and Kennedy a recovering user of both drugs and alcohol — and together they worked for 12 years to pass the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act. The act, which was passed in October 2008, requires most health insurance companies to provide better coverage for people with mental illness and addictions.

“The issue we’re [discussing] tonight is not just another public policy issue. It’s a matter of life or death,” said Ramstad. “On July 31 of 1981, I woke up in a jail cell in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, under arrest for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and failure to vacate the premises. … I figured it was not only the end of my political career but might as well be the end of my life. But, instead, that was a turning point in my life only because I had access to treatment. …. — something 300,000 Americans last year didn’t have.”

Ramstad said The Wall Street Journal estimates the financial cost of America’s mental illness and substance abuse to be $400 billion — the cost of untreated depression alone is estimated to be $70 billion.

“And who can measure the human suffering?” he said. “And what’s been the response to this public health crisis? Over the last eight years, it’s certainly been woefully inadequate.”

Kennedy compared the battle to get the Paul Wellstone bill passed to the battle his uncle, John F. Kennedy, fought for civil rights for African Americans.

“Frankly, we still have bigotry and stereotype guiding the treatment of those with mental health disorders,” he said about the struggle to get the issues acknowledged as mainstream problems.

Kennedy also spoke about the difficulties of proving the extent of the problem because of the culture of anonymity and shame that surrounds mental health and addiction problems.

“Those people aren’t up there knocking on the doors the way the NRA folks are,” he said. “The members of Congress aren’t hearing it and they’re not feeling the heat.”

The congressmen passionately advocated increased education, political activism, and funding for treatment and prevention.

“Where there’s injustice anywhere, there’s a threat to justice everywhere,” said Kennedy. “It’s in every family, every community, everywhere in America, and it affects every facet of life — business, health care, everything.”