Votes or Money? We need both!

      Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell has proposed cutting $300 million from the state’s mental health budget. His plan would reduce mental-health treatment beds by 232, take 5 percent in funds from community service boards (which provide mental health treatment in the community) and freeze enrollment for a program that provides insurance to low-income children.

    What McDonnell is doing is not much different from what other governors are doing across the country. Each day, I get a NAMI alert from some state chapter about budget cuts that will cause havoc in mental health programs.

    Under-cutting mental health is nothing new. It’s one reason why the old state hospital system failed. State legislators refused to adequately fund hospitals and we all know what happened because of their miserly spending.

    There’s a reason why mental health is such an easy target. A state legislator explained it to me last year when I told her that we needed more services in Virginia. “You have no clout!” she said.

   Politicians react to two things: votes and money. And mental health groups don’t seem to have either.

   Or do we?

   According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one out of every four adults will suffer from a mental illness at some point during the coming year. That is a huge voting block. We need to find a way to mobilize our forces.

   One simple way is for mental health groups, such as NAMI and Mental Health America to give a yearly award to local politicians who care about our issues. Buy a trophy, have it engraved and call the local newspaper. Politicians love getting awards and having their photos in the paper.

   On a national level, we need to find ways to financially support our friends and defeat our enemies. I wish that NAMI, MHA, the American Psychiatric Association, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, and other community mental health groups would join together and form a political action committee. Obviously, since many of these groups are non-profit, they would have to find a way legally to do this. But we need some sort of financial war-chest.

     I know such talk makes people nervous, but if you want to see evidence of how money talks, just look at Virginia. At 30 cents per pack, we have one of the lowest, state cigarette taxes in the nation. Last year, outgoing Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine recommended doubling that tax to help ease the state’s budget crisis. Charging 60 cents per pack would generate $180 million in new revenues. But the Virginia legislature refused to even consider his proposal. If you want to know why, you might want to read an editorial that I wrote for the Washington Post about how the tobacco lobby owns the Virginia legislature. Click here.

     Personally, I would rather see NAMI and other groups focus more on getting money into politicians hands than raising contributions toward research – a task that the National Institute of Mental Health should be doing.

    Until we either find a way to mobilize votes or contribute to campaigns we are always going to be the first to suffer budget cuts in important services.

    So what is stopping us?

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • donnamwilson

    Maybe the time is right for regular folks to listen to the plight of the mentally ill. This is very politically active times. Not long ago I was a person who was in the dark and would have never known such things without personal experience with our own child in the criminal justice system. The civic lessons I learned in the last year are priceless. The majority of the public may not understand mental illness or state laws but they do understand torture, cruel and unusual. My husband says, I wouldn't do to my dog what they did and are doing to my kid which is an unbelievable story in itself. Has anyone seen the TV commercial that advocates for the humane treatment of animals? The music and those sad dog and cat faces are extremely compelling. I would donate plenty to a group that was willing to place commercials on TV or elswhere that would tell the story of our loved ones and why they need treatment and understanding. Like you said we need a political action commitee with teeth. The matter is one of right and wrong and I think it could be sold that way. If PEDA can do it why can't we? Neuro science and pharmacology has made leaps and bounds over the last ten years so not only can the public be made sympathetic but they can also learn that psychiatry although not an exact science is getting better. If billions of tax payer money can be funneled into corupt forein governments then there is no reason why we couldn't convince the public that the money could be spent wiser for more humane reasons. Americans are the most generous people on this earth. They just have to be made aware of the situation in a way they can understand it.

  • Pete Earley writes:

    “On a national level, we need to find ways to financially support our friends and defeat our enemies. I wish that NAMI, MHA, the American Psychiatric Association, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, and other community mental health groups would join together and form a political action committee. Obviously, since many of these groups are non-profit, they would have to find a way legally to do this. But we need some sort of financial war-chest.”

    That's a great idea. Perhaps there's an existing PAC we could join…The ARC of Virginia is looking really good to me this week.

    Tobacco interests can't be taxed? Could they be cajoled into helping mental health? Seriously. Would tobacco interests pay for a public relations campaign like PETA's as described above? Is tobacco money somehow purified by taxation?

    Virginia=birthplace of Presidents and now birthplace of the gun toting mentally ill? Why doesn't the National Rifle Association pitch in some money to help undo the massive damage done by shootings at Virginia Tech, Appamatox, Centreville Police Station? I, for one, would renew my membership if they would.

    The author above me writes: “They just have to be made aware of the situation in a way they can understand it.”

    To me, that's it exactly.

  • donnamwilson

    Oh my God, great idea's. The NRA has to be interested because it is the mentally ill that are affecting our gun rights.

  • donnamwilson

    What I ment was is that the mentally ill are sometimes involved with using guns that results in bad things happening. Which therefore sheds bad light on guns. The NRA and gun manufactures should have a vested interest in helping the mentally ill.

  • donnamwilson

    Oh my God, great idea's. The NRA has to be interested because it is the mentally ill that are affecting our gun rights.

  • donnamwilson

    What I ment was is that the mentally ill are sometimes involved with using guns that results in bad things happening. Which therefore sheds bad light on guns. The NRA and gun manufactures should have a vested interest in helping the mentally ill.