To many, it is an unseen problem. People denied mental health services who end up homeless or incarcerated as criminals. This week at Chicago's Palmer House Hilton, the Kennedy Forum addressed this and other aspects of the lack of a functional community mental health system in the United States. The Kennedy Forum was founded to enlist business leaders and government agencies in fully implementing the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which has been amended by the Affordable Care Act, to guarantee equal access to medical care and help patients understand their rights.
To U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy and others who spoke at the event, called "The Cost of Doing Nothing," untreated people with mental illness may be the most salient public health problem there is.
"I have been out to Cook County Jail myself," Rep. Kennedy told me in a one-on-one interview. "It is the largest mental health facility in the nation." Chicago's 10,000-person jail may be the largest in the nation, but "every jail in America" is a de facto mental health facility Rep. Kennedy told me because community mental health support in the U.S., outlined 50 years ago with President Kennedy's Community Mental Health Act of 1963, "never got implemented." Patrick Kennedy is the youngest son of Sen. Edward Kennedy and served 16 years as Rhode Island's Democratic representative in Congress.
"If the nation wanted a good answer to Sandy Hook and Aurora" it would make a commitment to providing mental health care to any American who "suffers a psychotic break," he said. We are not doing "what we know works."
There is overwhelming evidence that mental health affects overall health, says Rep. Kennedy and U.S. medicine needs to start doing a "check up from the neck up." Currently, we have "a two-tier system"--one for health care and one for mental health care, he said, and the latter is "poorly reimbursed and poorly respected within the medical community."
Others at the conference agreed. We have "under funded and eliminated" community mental health services and people with mental illness are, not surprisingly, ending up in jail and prison said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart who participated on a panel called Models for Change: Addressing Mental Illness and Addiction in the Justice System.
The number of women with mental health issues is "exploding" in the judicial system said Sheriff Dart with as many as "18 out of 20 women [who are arrested] acutely psychotic." No one is sure why. Mentally ill people, like the growing wave of disturbed women, have usually been arrested for "misdemeanor 4s" said Dart which means they are not dangerous criminals and probably require mental health services which are currently absent.