Tackling The Stigma Attached To Mental Health

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Andrew Malekoff, center, along with State Senators Elaine Phillips and Todd Kaminsky

Last week, the Roslyn-based North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center hosted a conference highlighting the difficulties Long Islanders face when seeking help for mental health or chemical dependency issues.

Project Access is a year-long study in which hundreds of Long Islanders were surveyed about their experiences in trying to obtain such medical help. The study was supported by the Long Island Unitarian Universalist Fund of the Long Island Community Foundation.

Of the 650 Long Islanders who took part in the survey, almost half said that it was more difficult finding help for mental health or substance abuse problems than finding help for physical illnesses, nearly 40 percent said that their insurance company did not have an adequate number of providers and two-thirds said that their insurance company was not helpful to them in finding a suitable provider for themselves or a loved one.

Most disturbingly, almost 40 percent reported that stigma and affordability were impediments to seeking care.

“This report verifies what we have long known: Insurance companies and the government are not living up to their responsibility to provide people with quality, affordable and timely mental health and addictions care,” said Andrew Malekoff, executive director of the center. “Even though they are legally bound to have adequate networks of care, they fall far short of that mandate.”

Several speakers shared their stories.

“When my sister’s condition began to worsen, it put our entire family into crisis,” said Kerry Eller. “We knew she needed professional help to get her through this incredibly difficult time. It was extremely challenging to access appropriate treatment for my sister. The insurance company was not helpful with connecting us to in-network providers; they would give us referrals but when we would call, we would often find out that they no longer participated with our plan. It was exhausting and heart breaking to have to endure one failed call after another.”

“At our first visit to the ER, their first question wasn’t ‘How is he doing’ but rather ‘Do you have insurance that covers mental health care?’” added Janet Susin, the president of Queens/Nassau NAMI, on the troubles she faced in getting her son care for schizophrenia. “The reality is that there are not enough psychiatrists, particularly child psychiatrists, and very few are willing to take insurance.  We need to do something to rectify that situation.”

Finally, Rebecca Sanin, President/CEO of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, spoke of the great disparity in obtaining mental health care as opposed to care for physical illnesses. “Imagine if cancer patients faced delays and inadequate coverage; we would be up in arms as a region,” she said. “Project Access shows that two-thirds of respondents said insurance companies were not helpful and that it required multiple calls and contacts to access care. This is unconscionable. When a person is in crisis, the window to engage in treatment is small, and it may never open again if they are turned away.”

“We are calling on the New York State Department of Financial Services to launch a thorough investigation of this issue,” Malekoff added. “It’s incumbent upon all of us to advocate for change. Access delayed is access denied. People’s lives are at stake.”

To view the full report, go to the guidance center’s website at www.northshorechildguidance.org.

—Information provided by the North Shore Guidance Center

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Joe Scotchie is the editor of both The Roslyn News and New Hyde Park Illustrated News. In 2009, he won a New York State Press Association award for a sports feature. Joseph Scotchie’s past publications include biographies of Thomas Wolfe and Richard Weaver and a comprehensive history of the city of Asheville, North Carolina.

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