Mind Matters -- May 2004
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

May is Mental Health Month!
by Ron Sterling, M.D. -- May 2004

      As regular readers of this column know, I have often written about ageism and about the shame or stigma that older Americans often associate with mental health treatment. Most recently, I have criticized AARP for its lack of serious subject matter at their Web site about alcohol and aging and about mental illness concerns. Many readers have written to me wanting to know what they can do to change things. This article contains a few of my recommendations.

      Unfortunately, mental health stigma exists and, unfortunately, there has been much more talk about it than there has been action. Take, for instance, the fact that President Bush gave a wonderful speech about mental health parity on April 29, 2002, but since then he has done next to nothing to make sure mental illness gets the same attention as other medical conditions.

      May is National Mental Health Month (www.mentalhealthmonth.org) which is sponsored by the National Mental Health Association (www.nmha.org). May 23-29 is National Older Americans' Mental Health Week (www.owl-national.org), sponsored by The Older Women's League. Other organizations that have paid special attention to older adult mental health are the Older Americans Consumer Mental Health Alliance (http://www.oacmha.com) and the National Council on Aging (http://www.ncoa.org). Joining and getting active in any of these organizations would be making a contribution to better health care for older Americans.

      There are at least two very important legislative efforts that need support. One is the Geriatricians Loan Forgiveness Act (S. 2075) and the other is the Medicare Mental Health Modernization Act of 2003. You can get much more information about both of these bills at MentalHealthParity.com.

      The Loan Forgiveness act is an important incentive for graduating physicians to encourage them to enter geriatric medicine and geriatric psychiatry to help alleviate serious shortages of such professionals. It was reintroduced on February 12, 2004, by Senators Reid, Breaux, and Lincoln. It has three co-sponsors. Neither Senators Cantwell nor Murray have signed on to this bill. Please consider writing to them to ask them to co-sponsor the bill.

      The Mental Health Modernization Act was introduced in both the U.S. Senate (S. 646) and House of Representatives (H.R. 1340) on March 18, 2003. The Mental Health Modernization Act of 2003 equalizes the benefits for physical and mental health care, thereby eliminating discrimination toward seniors who seek treatment for Alzheimer's disease, late-life depression, and other mental conditions. It establishes parity for mental and physical illnesses in Medicare and expands access to community-based mental health services. It is languishing in the U.S. Senate. H.R. 1340 has 62 co-sponsors. S. 646 has only 10. Neither Senators Cantwell nor Murray have signed on to this bill. Please consider writing to them to ask them to co-sponsor the bill.

      In addition, I encourage you to e-mail Washington State AARP at wa@aarp.org and national AARP at member@aarp.org and let them know you are concerned that they are not taking a strong enough stand on important mental health legislation. In that regard, as of April 18, 2004, I could not find any information, whatsoever, about the Medicare Mental Health Modernization Act at www.AARP.org.

      The best way to reduce stigma about mental health treatment is to make sure that people don't have to pay more for their mental health care than for other health care. If the message being sent is "brain care is less valuable than heart care," how can we expect people to believe that brain care matters?

      It would be nice if we could trust our leaders to have the right priorities, but we can't. Since we are the government, it is up to us to make things happen. May is a great month to start working for better mental health care for older Americans. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. Read our Disclaimer. If you wish to understand more about Dr. Sterling's potential biases in health care advocacy, please check his Conflicts of Interest Disclosure Statement

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