Billy Young

Billy Young, Right Track Medical Group

The most troubling trends in our country today are closely tied to mental-health concerns. It doesn’t take an expert to see that.

Suicide rates have climbed 33 percent over the past two decades. Drug addiction has ravaged millions of families. Mass shootings have taken nearly 700 American lives in this century.

It’s no wonder that everybody talks about mental health these days. What’s baffling is this: Why do we as a society continue allowing all this to go on?

For those of us who work in the mental-health field, it’s mind-boggling that we are approaching the year 2020 without our society having made more progress.

It’s true that mental health is no longer the taboo subject it once was. But when was the last time you heard someone talk openly about a mental illness like depression, the way they would talk about having a heart condition?

Companies these days encourage their employees to take a “mental health day” to “refresh and reboot.” While this is a welcome practice, it also tends to trivialize what mental health is really about. It communicates to people: “You’ll take a day to recharge, and then you’ll be better.”

For people who are truly dealing with mental-health issues, the implicit message is this: “You should be able to get this taken care of pretty quickly. Just take a day off, and you’ll be able to come back and function just fine.”

It’s a well-meaning initiative that reveals just how naïve we still are as a society about mental-health issues.

The truth is, some 10 million adults in America — about one in 20 people — live with a serious mental illness. Many suffer silently, only getting help when their symptoms reach a crisis level, if then.

But mental illness is just like any other health issue: The longer you wait to get treatment, the more serious it becomes. And the harder it is to treat.

It’s past time to change this dynamic. All you have to do is watch the news every day to see why.

Prevention and early intervention must become the standard in mental healthcare. People should be encouraged to get psychiatric care and therapy sooner, rather than waiting for a crisis. They need access to care at the outpatient level, before a mental illness gets so serious they need to be hospitalized.

Insurance companies must follow existing federal laws that forbid them from covering mental health differently from physical health. State governments — including Mississippi — must require that they actually follow the law. Today, many don’t.

Employers need to make sure that the insurance policies they offer their employees cover outpatient mental-health visits like a general office visit, rather than at a higher “specialist” rate. If they don’t, their employees will not be able to access care. Mental illnesses will progress until a crisis requires hospitalization — with all the associated cost and hardship for both the family and the business.

Finally, other stakeholders in our society must share in the responsibility of getting care for people with a mental illness before they reach a crisis. The most urgent needs, of course, are those who could be at risk for harming themselves or others.

Schools, employers, family courts, hospitals and medical providers all should have good systems for identifying those who are at risk for a mental-health crisis and for helping them access psychiatric evaluations and appropriate care.

Will making these changes cure all our societal ills related to mental illness? No. But it would represent a huge stride.

It’s past time to move mental health forward in this country. Until psychiatric screenings are as ordinary as mammograms and blood pressure checks, we are not going to make real progress in what has become the dominant issue of American life in this century.

Billy Young has spent more than 40 years in mental and behavioral healthcare. He is CEO of Right Track Medical Group, a network of outpatient mental-health clinics in North Mississippi.

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