The recent financial bailout contains a ray of hope for millions of families who struggle with mental illness. Tucked inside H.R. 1424, which President Bush signed Oct. 3, is a provision to create "parity" for mental health in group health insurance. As of January 2010, families with group health insurance can expect to be treated the same whether they seek help for mental or physical illness.
Previously, some health insurance plans didn't cover mental illness. Patients lucky enough to have health insurance for substance-abuse disorders or mental illnesses were treated differently — they had to accept higher deductibles and abide by strict limits for hospital stays and doctor visits.
Not surprisingly, people with untreated or partially treated mental illness didn't get better. Many ended up on the edge of society, or in homeless shelters, jails or institutions.
"Americans now will be able to get treatment when they need it," said Michael Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness , which has called for parity for 20 years.
There's been "story after story" about people losing their homes or going into financial hardship trying to pay for mental-health services, he told me. Now it will be easier for people to find and pay for treatment for major illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and severe anxiety disorder. Early intervention, he added, will help more people recover so they can return to school or work.
I won't go into the reasons why it has taken 20 years to take this step of parity. Suffice it to say, the new law represents important compromises by insurance companies, businesses, mental health advocates and service providers.
Mr. Fitzpatrick says — and I agree — that the "ultimate impact" of mental illness "is really on the family."
Mental illness can appear at any stage in life. It is confusing and frightening to sufferers and those around them. It is an utterly unwanted diagnosis, so there is overwhelming pressure by everyone to "normalize" a loved one's strange behaviors.
Probably the cruelest aspect of mental illness is that it robs — sometimes permanently — wonderful people of the ability to experience and maintain the close, loving interpersonal relationships that make life worth living.
The fight for mental health is daunting, as well. It's hard to get a precise diagnosis. Then it's hard to find the best therapy. Virtually all drugs have negative side effects, ranging from unwanted weight gain to listless libidos.
I learned a few things about mental illness a few years ago when I participated in one of NAMI's free 12-week "family to family" educational courses. Everyone who came to the meetings was actively struggling with a loved one who had a mental illness. I can't tell you names, but here are a few details.
• Two women in business suits came because their unemployed husbands kept cycling in and out of depression. Both women loved their husbands, but the illnesses had shredded their marriages and they were both reluctantly considering separations.
• Several parents attended. Some were there because their college-age children were struggling with bipolar disorder that had erupted when they were at college. One mother, a widow, was constantly fighting to get treatment for her son so he could stay in high school and out of hospitals. Another mother was seeking a doctor for her adult son who acted kind and loving one day - and menacing the next. Virtually everyone talked about their problems with insurance companies.
The NAMI program, however, gave them a place to share, grieve, question, get educated and find resources and references for their loved ones. I don't know what happened to everyone, but last I heard, at least one marriage dissolved and several children were much, much better.
• Send e-mail to cwetzstein@washington times.com.