Georgia ranks 48th nationwide for access to mental health care, but state legislatures hope to improve this crucial issue with House Bill 1013, also known as the Georgia Mental Health Parity Act.
The bill, signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp in April, will require insurers to cover mental health issues and substance abuse issues as well as physical illnesses like heart attacks or diabetes.
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“If you have a knee or back injury – you may have surgery, you may not – but you almost always get the kind of physical rehabilitation with a physical therapist that’s needed to get your knee working properly again. said Dr. Mark Johnson, a psychiatric specialist at Gateway Behavior Health.
“Insurance companies don’t have to pay for the type of rehabilitation that we know is needed for psychosis or depression.”
To put that in perspective, patients would have to be suicidal before health insurance would pay for a visit. If this standard is applied to another health condition, such as a heart attack, a person would have to show they were having a heart attack before care could be paid for.
“It just snowballs from there,” said Sen. Ben Watson (R-Savannah), a co-sponsor of the bill. “And so, I think Georgia will lead the way in that we’ve been trying to get state regulations to require insurance companies to treat mental health at the same level as is appropriate.”
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The Mental Health Parity Act also aims to expand access to care by increasing the number of mental health professionals in the state through loan forgiveness, improving data and transparency in the sector; Provided a grant program to set up assisted outpatient treatment programs and relax Georgia’s involuntary commitment standard by assisting police officers and crisis responders when called into a mental health crisis.
The latter goal relates to SB 403, also known as the Georgia Behavioral Health and Peace Officer Co-Responder Act, which would provide a statewide framework for more co-responder teams. The bill would give local law enforcement the ability to work with mental health providers to assist officers in responding to an emergency mental health crisis.
The Savannah Police Department’s Behavioral Health Unit is a prime example of this. The unit is designed to create an effective community intervention to reduce prison utilization for adults, young adults and youth who may need alternative services or have behavioral health and/or substance abuse needs.
CIT (Cris Intervention Trained) officers undergo intensive 40-hour training teaching them how to respond to people experiencing an emotional or mental health crisis.
A good first step for Georgia, but one that many more need to follow
While the bill relates to the mental health system in Georgia, it’s just the first step in what many will do for this long-term investment.
Mary Jo Horton, Behavioral Health Manager and Social Worker at Memorial Health, oversees the hospital’s inpatient and outpatient services. Horton was a former mental health clinician at Chatham County Juvenile Court and also ran a therapeutic nursing agency.
Through her experiences, she has seen how difficult it can be to navigate the mental health system.
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“While Savannah definitely has more resources in some rural areas, we’re certainly a patchwork system of services, so it’s very frustrating,” Horton said. “I’ve really seen a multitude of experiences and I’ve seen the frustration and pain and suffering that families go through to get the right services. There is instability in counseling centers…with parents, there isn’t much equitable education in the community about what the difference is between sending my child to a psychiatrist and sending my child to a licensed therapist and getting an evaluation. “
Mental health has long been a public stigma that has led to a lack of understanding from family members, friends and colleagues, and fewer opportunities. When the focus is placed on minority communities, seeking mental health care becomes stigmatized.
The inequality of access is compounded by structural challenges and underscored by the fact that only one in three African Americans struggling with mental illness will ever receive adequate treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses.
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Minority communities also have fewer options if they are uninsured. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 19% of Hispanics had no health insurance in 2018.
“I think the biggest question a family can ask is what am I currently connected to,” Horton said of the difficulty of access. “Communities have their own informal networks and I think sometimes we don’t use what already works for some communities. … People get so nervous about asking for help, but when they go to their neighbor and share, they go to their church or their denomination and share, suddenly other people feel empowered. And then what you find is that they then create a really wonderful support network for each other.”
Johnson said the next big thing is taking on apartments. He explained that stable housing and an established routine can improve an individual’s mental health.
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Both Johnson and Horton believe the law is a step in the right direction.
“It’s not the end of everything. We’ve been making mental health legislation since I’ve been in the legislature, and we will be making mental health legislation after I’m out of the legislature,” Watson said.
“But the point is, I think that’s a big step in the right direction; I think it’s a big step.”
Laura Nwogu is a quality of life reporter for Savannah Morning News. Contact them at LNwogu@gannett.com. Twitter: @lauranwogu_