On Tuesday the President called for - among other important action items - "a $500 million investment to improve access to mental health services." This was promptly followed by the moans and groans of people fearing for the loss of their guns and proclaiming that this money could be better spent elsewhere. About one in four adults in our country has a mental illness, yet a fraction of those people are getting help. Why? That's a whole other article. In the last paragraph here I'm going to send out a call to arms for people to share their stories. What follows is one chapter of mine.
By the grace of God I was able to finish grad school in 2013 and secure a job in my chosen industry, albeit in a remote part of Alaska. The next year and a half were challenging, but exciting. 2015? That was a whole other animal. My fiance dumped me in January, two months before our wedding. I left the job, home, and city I'd occupied for a year and a half in the blink of an eye. I relocated to another part of the state, started over, got a new job, car, and apartment. The Summer turned out to be wild and wonderful. I hiked, biked, explored, and fell in love with many different parts of the state. The midnight sun filled my body with joy, light, and vitamin D. I was constantly on the go, enjoying the challenges my new job brought, and frequently hitting the gym.
Then September came around. It got dark, cold, and dreary. Weekend adventuring got hard. The isolation hit me like a ton of bricks. No friends, no family, very little fun. Going to the gym and trying to meet people ceased. Leaving the house for something besides work became a daunting task. Before I knew it... I was way down in it. When I started having trouble getting out of bed in the mornings though, I decided it was time to get some help. I sought out a therapist and a psychiatrist. I felt confident about this, after all, I have a good idea of how the industry works. Also, I'm in Alaska, a state known to have high rates of depression and mental illness, "surely help here is abundant," I thought.
Procuring help turned out to be an exhausting and disparaging endeavor. Already tired and brain-foggy from depression, I made my way through a litany of names and phone numbers from my insurance company. Over half of them were wrong numbers or weren't taking new clients. Finally I connected with a therapist. It was a couple of weeks before she could see me, then she slowly got to know me. Once a week I went to see her, poured my heart out, cried, then left feeling alone and frustrated. Then there was the hunt for a psychiatrist. The first two offices I called said that their waiting lists were months long. No, it didn't matter that I was crying every day and having trouble getting out of bed in the mornings. If it was urgent I needed to go to the hospital. Finally I found a place that could get me in within a month. However, it was going to cost $450 because I hadn't yet met my deductible.
After that first psych appointment it only cost about $50 to get seen once a month. Weekly therapy on the other hand? The first several appointments each cost almost $200 a week, then going down to about $70 a week. Eventually I stopped going because I couldn't afford it and found it wasn't helping. Don't be sad for me though! 2016 is looking up. After falling apart on a trip home to sunny Florida in November, I came back to Alaska determined to feel better. I've been using a "happy lamp" (aka a full spectrum lamp which replicates the sun's light), started taking a few different vitamins, and instead of paying someone $70 a week to talk to me, I started spending $30 to pay a lovely massage student to help unravel the big old rocks in my shoulders I was calling muscles. I've also been making a better effort to overcome the four hour time difference and connect more often with my loves on the East coast.
When I think back to 2015 I am a little frustrated at how much money and trouble it was to secure help, but that's not the main thing that pains me. Keep your judgment to yourself, but I currently serve as a mental health therapist. As life would have it though, my greatest passion is public policy, trying to figure out how we create more just, people-centered laws and correct the many ails of our society. In spite of my fair wage, I still haven't paid off all my medical bills from last year. I swear to God, sometimes I just look at them and cry. Yeah, a little because I'm frustrated at the costs. More so though because every time I look at them, I think of all the people out there who can afford it even less than me.
I'm a middle class, insured person, who is well versed in how the system works. If I have trouble securing and paying for help, what the hell kind of chance does a low income, uninsured person have? That's not to say there isn't help for them or that they are not resourceful. That is to say this system is broken. It should not be this hard to get help, and the fact that it is, is tragic. So $500 million towards mental health? Okay, that's a start, and I thank our executive branch for it, but it's not enough. I think we all need to do our part. Yes, even you. What can you do? A lot!
First of all please keep those 1 in 4 people struggling with mental illness in your mind, and speak out against those dummies who think mental illness is fake or unworthy. Secondly, be civically engaged! Elect people to office who fight for funding for public access to mental healthcare. Lastly, I know that endless numbers of you have stories just like mine. Share them! Be honest with loved ones and consider writing your representatives to tell them what you've faced and that you want action. As our President stated in 2008 when he was still campaigning, "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."