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About Mental Health

How can we ensure that the one in five American adults who are living with a mental health condition receive more support, not less?

The first thing every American needs to understand about mental illness and substance use conditions is that with timely diagnosis and proper treatment, the overwhelming majority of people can recover and lead fulfilling lives. The second thing everyone should know is that we all have a stake in making sure that everyone has access to high-quality, affordable health care.

A rehabilitation center in Westborough, Mass.(Photo: John Moore, Getty Images)

The two of us met last week at The Carter Center to discuss how we could work together to help strengthen our nation’s mental health system. We were heartened to learn of the story of Ivan Diaz, whose life exemplifies the transformative power of compassion. The 57-year-old New York City native, a chef by trade, was living with schizoaffective disorder, which made it hard for him to keep a steady job and home. On top of that, he had a substance use problem, diabetes and kidney failure. It was nearly impossible for him to care for himself.

“I was living a rough life,” he shared with local advocates. “I was doing drugs. I was lonely. I didn’t have too many friends.”

Ivan recognized he was in trouble. He received services that supported his recovery, including transitional housing and vocational services from Project Interconnections and Community Friendship, Inc., which provide help for adults with behavioral health disorders in Atlanta.

Today Ivan is much healthier, has his own apartment in Atlanta, and works as a part-time peer specialist with Community Friendship. One essential element of his lifesaving turnaround was Medicaid, which he qualified for under the Affordable Care Act. Losing that coverage would be catastrophic for him.

Ivan is very cognizant of the personal impact if this were to occur. “I’d be in a world of hurt. I use Medicaid to get my medicine, to get therapy, to see my psychiatrist, to see my primary-care doctor, to get my diabetes supplies … If I don’t have Medicaid, all that is gone.”

Ivan is far from alone in his struggle.

Untreated mental illnesses in the U.S. cost more than $100 billion a year in lost productivity, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Research from the American Psychiatric Association Foundation shows that appropriate treatment of mental disorders and addictions produces cost savings in terms of employee productivity, absenteeism and reduced turnover.

That is why it’s in everyone’s best interest to invest in treatment. New York City is setting an example with ThriveNYC, an $850-million effort to change the way New Yorkers think about mental health, and the way city government and its partners deliver treatment.

While there is room for improvement in the Affordable Care Act, it has been good for Americans with mental illnesses and substance use conditions, for those who love them, and for society as a whole. A plan that would have repealed and replaced the ACA failed last week, leaving mental health coverage intact.

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But the question remains: What happens next? How can we ensure that the one in five American adults who are living with a mental health condition receive more support, not less?

While there is no single answer, one thing is clear: As our lawmakers continue working to improve our health care system, they must preserve the ACA’s recognition of mental health and substance use services as Essential Health Benefits. The sure availability of coverage has been life-changing — and indeed, lifesaving — for untold numbers of Americans like Ivan.

Compassion is what makes our nation great. When we invest in the health and happiness of our fellow Americans, we reap dividends that pay off for generations. We urge our leaders to support all those Americans who are seeking to restore and maintain their physical and mental health. We can think of no better way to strengthen our economy, our communities, and our families.

Rosalynn Carter is a former first lady of the United States. Chirlane McCray is the first lady of New York City. 

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Rosalynn Carter and Chirlane McCray 8:15 a.m. ET April 11, 2017