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Why One Percent Matters

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This morning we published an excerpt from Mind Race: A Firsthand Account of One Teenager’s Experience with Bipolar Disorder. The excerpt looked at the author’s initial reaction to being diagnosed with a mental illness. Adolescence isn’t easy for anyone, and it can be especially difficult for teens with mental health problems, problems that are not even fully recognized by health insurance companies. In the article below Patrick E. Jamieson, author of Mind Race, argues for better health insurance.

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In the United States about 1 percent of the adolescent population has bipolar disorder. About 6 percent, of U.S. Children have asthma.

What differentiates the two diagnoses? The availability of health insurance – and the acceptance of society that bipolar and similar disorders are a treatable disease.

Most health insurance plans cover only half of the costs of treating mental illness, while covering 100 percent of so-called physical illnesses. This creates more than just a stigma, but, for many, an insurmountable barrier to medical treatment.

I have had symptoms of bipolar disorder since I was 11 years old. If I was not covered by a group health insurance through my employer it would cost me around $100,000 a year to obtain coverage. (Because I have been have been hospitalized six times for my disorder, I am deemed to have a pre-existing condition.) Needless to say, I work hard to keep my job so that if I get sick again my treatment and recovery is paid for by my insurer.

I was also diagnosed with asthma and insurance covered it. For reasons I do not understand, insurers are more willing to underwrite treatment of physical ailments than they are of mental ones.

What is their reasoning?

I have read and been told that the mental health risks to American youth are exaggerated and that there are very few who are truly in danger.

Perhaps to insurers, but not the 1 percent of people and their families who suffer from these disorders.

As a society, we often measure the consequences of mental disorders among teenagers in terms of suicides or homicides. We don’t calculate the toll of the disease on those who go untreated. If we did, surely the percentage of the population afflicted would be higher. More importantly, we are ignoring an illness that ultimately will lead to larger problems later in life. Imagine ignoring the early warning signs of diabetes or hemophilia.

Those of us in this 1 percent group have a vital role to play in changing attitudes toward mental disorders. We can speak out about the inequities of health coverage. And through a growing public awareness of this disease, empower those suffering from mental disorders while educating their family and friends. What we need is to raise the level of understanding about a disease that afflicts this small, but important, segment of our population.

There is some good news: Advances in medical treatment mean that if the young and mentally ill get — and stay — treated they can likely manage their disorders.

To that end, I researched and wrote Mind Race (Oxford University Press 2006). It is the book I needed when I was diagnosed at age 15. I wrote it to help educate those who are ill with bipolar disorder and those who care about them.

Why does 1% of the population matter? Because I matter and every person matters. Mental health insurance parity should not be just a priority for us as a society, but a reality. To achieve that, we must educate the public that mental health treatment is available, that it works, and it is not a shameful thing. Rather, it is a sign of strength to get treated and stay treated if you are ill. In that regard, it is no different than asthma. Small in number, but too important to ignore.


Mind Race, part of a series of books by the Adolescent Mental Health Initiative of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, is funded without using money from pharmaceutical companies. Here are some other great resources to check out:

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