WASHINGTON – Lawmakers will send a letter to President Bush this week urging him to include $1.5 million in his 2008 budget request to raise awareness about mental health disorders caused by disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 attacks.
Reps. Patrick Kennedy,D-R.I.,and Jim Ramstad,R-Minn.,co-chairs of a House committee for mental health issues,drafted the letter,which cites the costs of mental health problems to the economy.
According to a study that is mentioned in the letter conducted by the Lewin Group,a health care research group,untreated trauma-related alcohol and drug abuse cost the economy $160.7 billion in 2000.
“When terrorists attack us,they're looking for the ripple effect,” Kennedy said. “They're looking to have the nation's attention transfixed and having people afraid.”
He said community leaders need to be prepared to deal with such reactions during and after disasters.
Kennedy and Ramstad's request to the president echoed the wishes of health and government officials who met Sept. 13 to discuss creating more aggressive mental health care for trauma victims.
With more mental health care and education available – especially to those who have survived traumas – people would have better skills to cope and return to normal,Kennedy said.
At the briefing,five experts said mental health issues are often overlooked and not taken seriously.
David Shern, president of the National Mental Health Association,said studies had found increased rates of attempted suicides since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“All of us are vulnerable to these sorts of issues,” he said. “We should be teaching our communities how to plan for and respond to such events.”
According to a study not mentioned at the briefing by Randall Marshall of the New York State Psychiatric Institute,about 150,000 New Yorkers developed post-traumatic stress syndrome after Sept. 11,a mental disorder that is seen in some soldiers returning from battle and disaster survivors.
Kathryn Power,director of the Center for Mental Health Services,said that in 2003 – the most recent data – there were 31,000 reported suicides and 10,000 homicides. In many cases,Power said people had even visited their doctors less than a month before committing suicide.
During her work in state-run psychiatric wards in the 1990s,Power said trauma was never considered part of the problem.
“We never asked people who came into the state-run psychiatric institution if they had any trauma,” she said. “We'd look at the illness and not the person behind the illness.”
Helga West,who was attacked and nearly beaten to death by two men while touring Florida in 1993,said she wants to see mental problems that result from trauma viewed as a treatable disease,not a personal problem.
“There really should be a national pursuit addressing the needs victims have,” she said.
She is president of Witness Justice,a victims' rights advocacy group that co-sponsored the briefing with the House's Bi-partisan Caucus on Addiction,Treatment and Recovery,which Kennedy co-chairs.
Also at the briefing,Kennedy touted the Ramstad-Kennedy bill,which is a mental health parity initiative that would require insurance companies to treat psychological problems like other illnesses and injuries.
Kennedy proposed his bill after the Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act was introduced in the Senate in 2001. Despite congressional and White House support,it has been stagnant. The Senate bill is named after Sen. Paul Wellstone,D-Minn.,who died in a plane crash in 2002.
A similar bill in the New York state Senate passed last week. Gov. George E. Pataki has not said if he will sign it.
According to the National Mental Health Association Web site,34 states require some form of mental health parity by insurance companies.
Sandy Ramsey,a mental health counselor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency,travels to disaster sites to give victims,families and first responders advice on how to cope. She responded to the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
In a telephone interview,she said she knows the realities of tragic events and that there should be more follow up with victims – especially on one-year anniversaries.
“I would like to see mental health services expanded into a longer term,” she said.
Ramsey agreed that health care plans should be expanded to cover mental health.
“We can see a broken leg,but we can't see a broken spirit,” she said.