Murt: Expand access to mental health care

By State Rep. Tom Murt

One in five Americans are affected by mental health challenges, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Mental health is a combination of emotional, psychological and cerebral wellness. There are a multitude of factors that can alter a person’s mental health, including but not limited to: biological factors, trauma, living situations and family history. In most cases, people can be successfully treated for a mental illness or disorder, however, less than half of the population that needs help for a mental illness actually receives the assistance that they need to be well. Early intervention and accessibility to treatment are critical and can help address some of the implications associated with mental illness.

As a start, our society must do a better job discussing mental health and working together to end the stigma surrounding someone seeking help for a mental illness. The stigma of mental illness inhibits a person’s ability to seek out and receive the critically important help that is needed to be well. By addressing this stigma, we can better assist those struggling with mental illness. As the chairman of the Subcommittee on Mental Health, improving access to treatment and ensuring true mental health parity are priorities of our committee.

The School Safety Task Force recently took a closer look at this issue by hosting regional meetings across the commonwealth to hear insights from students, teachers and administrators. There is a distinct gap regarding the availability and accessibility of mental health care professionals. In Pennsylvania, there is only one mental health professional for every 600 students. In order to adequately address the mental health and well-being of our students, the task force made recommendations for an increase in the number of therapists, psychiatrists, social workers and guidance counselors in schools and in the surrounding communities. To continue these efforts, an additional study is being conducted to review the current shortages and encourage these mental health professionals to practice in underserved areas, many of which are in rural and inner-city areas.

Suicide is a major mental health concern. In fact, suicide is the second-leading cause of death amongst people aged 10 to 34 years old. In May 2019, the Suicide Prevention Task Force was established to help reduce suicide attempts and to confront the accompanying stigma surrounding mental health issues. This strategic coalition of state agencies, professionals and stakeholders worked together to formulate a prevention plan and promote educational resources for the public. One of the goals for this coordinated effort is to ensure that help is available for all. In addition, learning the signs and symptoms of mental illness is helpful in identifying these concerns and how to best assist those in need of help.

Individuals diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder can experience a sense of shame and burden in their day-to-day lives. This perception limits their ability to freely discuss their thoughts and emotions, and too often, prevents them from seeking out the assistance they need to recover and be well. It is imperative that as a society, we utilize respectful language when discussing mental health and challenge the misconceptions people have. By creating this broader understanding of mental illness, we break down barriers and encourage individuals living with a mental illness to seek the supports and health care they need to be well.

To bring mental health concerns to the forefront, I recently circulated a co-sponsorship memorandum that would recognize October as “Mental Health Awareness” month in Pennsylvania. This resolution will raise awareness about mental illness, the importance of mental health and the importance of ending the stigma that accompanies mental illness.

It is clear that there needs to be an expansion of access to mental healthcare as well as a purging of the stigma that exists for people who seek help for mental illness. The most important things we are hoping to accomplish in this discussion is to connect Pennsylvanians who need them with the resources they need to be well, to set them on a successful path to recovery, to end the stigma, to discuss mental illness with respect and compassion and perhaps most of all, ensuring true mental health parity in our commonwealth. ••

Tom Murt represents the 152nd Legislative District and is chairman of the Aging and Older Adults Committee and the Subcommittee on Mental Health.