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Op-Ed: Giving people help also provides them hope

By Chuck Ingoglia, MSW

Everyone should have the opportunity to be healthy. But not everyone has that opportunity today.

A March 29 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that “people of all ages are experiencing a need for services related to mental health and substance use disorders. One out of five adults report having a mental illness, and many experience difficulty getting access to behavioral health care.”

A separate study on May 3 cited Alabama as the third worst state for mental health care.

As we observe Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s acknowledge that no one is immune from a mental health or substance use challenge and we can do more to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be healthy. We can do more to give people hope.

Achieving that requires eliminating barriers to care. It requires chipping away aggressively at the fear and discrimination that so often prevent people from seeking treatment. It requires continued investment in the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which will celebrate its second anniversary this July.

It requires expanding access to evidence-based prevention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery supports to help those with substance use disorders and reduce the number of overdose deaths.

It requires closing the coverage gap for approximately 100,000 Alabamians who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid and too little qualify for subsidies for the Affordable Care Act Plans. Of the 10 worst states for mental health care identified in the study, seven of those states have failed to close the coverage gap. 

It requires greater investment in Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHCs), which serve all people, regardless of their ability to pay. The clinics also:

  • Eliminate wait lists so people receive care immediately.
  • Establish innovative partnerships with law enforcement, schools and hospitals to improve care, reduce recidivism and prevent hospital readmissions.
  • Improve integration of physical care with mental health and substance use treatment and care.
  • And create jobs.

Perhaps most importantly, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to be healthy also requires developing programs to recruit and retain more mental health and substance use professionals, as the OIG stated in its report. The OIG found that “many types of behavioral health providers have reported concerns about being able to meet the increased need for behavioral health services. For example, 65 percent of surveyed psychologists said they had no capacity for new patients, and 68 percent said their wait lists were longer than they were prior to the pandemic.”

Separately, a survey last year conducted by The Harris Poll found that the vast majority (83%) of the nation’s behavioral health workforce believes that without public policy changes, provider organizations won’t be able to meet the demand for mental health or substance use treatment and care.

As of March 2024, 122 million Americans lived in areas with mental health professional shortages, and the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration estimates that thousands more professionals are needed to ensure an adequate supply. We must reverse those trends, develop more pipelines and provide multiple avenues to employment in a growing field.

Despite the significant practical hurdles that remain, awareness of mental health and substance use challenges is on the rise, and more people understand the value of caring for their mental wellbeing and are more comfortable discussing it. That is meaningful progress. But it’s not enough. A recent poll from the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 86% of U.S. residents want Congress to do more to improve mental health care.

Until we can meet demand for mental health and substance treatment and care among all people — youth, veterans, those in rural communities, Black people, Native Americans, AAPI, LGBTQ+ people and older adults — we must continue the work to improve access to care.

We can’t be mentally well and thriving if we can’t access mental health and substance use treatment and care. So we must do more to make mental wellbeing, including recovery from substance use challenges, a reality for everyone, everywhere.

Because we all deserve the opportunity to be healthy.

Chuck Ingoglia

Chuck Ingoglia, MSW, is president and CEO at the National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Call or text 988 or chat

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