Feds issue emergency call to lower the mental illness rate in young people

The surgeon general issued an emergency call Tuesday to support programs that help reduce the burden of mental illness on youth as the nation transitions to universal preschool.

The call is a message to Americans living with mental illness, their families and advocates who have called for tougher measures in recent years to treat and prevent mental illness at a young age.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams told reporters at a news conference Tuesday that mental illness costs America’s economy $147 billion a year.

The message from Adams echoes one he delivered in February in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, when he called for “bold, courageous and constructive actions to advance our understanding of mental health issues and improve the lives of those who have mental illness.”

The Affordable Care Act expanded the availability of mental health insurance plans, but Adams said the law does not offer a comprehensive path to treat the high rates of depression and other mental disorders that afflict young people.

“It needs to be more inclusive, all across the population, if we’re going to have any hope to change these outcomes,” Adams said, adding that being considered for the surgeon general’s position “gave me the opportunity to voice my opinion on this issue.”

Adams said the “shameful reality” is that suicide and suicide attempts by young people have reached epidemic proportions.

“Suicide was the number one cause of death in kids and teens,” Adams said. “It was more than homicide. . .and was unfortunately three times higher than car crashes. And far too many families are without a member.”

Using scientific evidence, Adams said his report identified barriers to mental health care.

They include:

Continuing to be underinsured, which leaves patients paying for and facing skyrocketing out-of-pocket costs as well as difficulty getting care at private physicians.

Rural and racially and ethnically diverse populations, which often do not have easy access to an advanced level of care.

Physicians that lack training or expertise in mental health.

Access to mental health insurance.

Adams also acknowledged the role of schools, parents and individuals in promoting and informing about mental health.

“I want to encourage people to be open about what’s going on in their lives,” Adams said. “Not only good for individuals, but, in some cases, it can be very helpful in understanding what you might be dealing with. . . .It’s about peer support, the moral compass you have on your own, and, ultimately, getting help for any issues.”

Lisa Kamensky, director of the Mental Health Policy Center at the Social Policy Foundation, said Adams’ efforts to stem the mental health crisis demonstrate the surgeon general’s “serious commitment” to addressing the issue.

On Dec. 14, at 3 p.m., Adams will convene a forum for congressional staffers from the powerful House Appropriations Committee and the House and Senate Budget Committee to discuss how to develop legislation to expand access to mental health services.

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