Hundreds of Mental Health Advocates from All 50 States Converge on Capitol Hill

Last week, more than 700 advocates from around the country descended on Washington, D.C., to educate lawmakers about the need for improved policies and funding around mental health care. Now in its thirteenth year, the National Council for Behavioral Health Hill Day brought together participants from 20 different mental health advocacy organizations including your Care for Your Mind principals, the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)—a partner for the past seven years—and Families for Depression Awareness.

Prior to storming Capitol Hill, advocates spent a day learning about the issues at a series of educational sessions. National Council leaders provided an overview of the most important mental health issues on the national agenda, including protecting access to care through a fully-funded Medicaid program, expanding the recognized workforce for mental health care and addiction treatment, and holding our lawmakers accountable for passing a responsible budget that ensures access to care for mental health and substance use disorders.

During the morning breakout sessions, new attendees learned best practices for conducting a meaningful and impactful meeting with lawmakers. Advocacy tips included doing your research. National Council Vice President for Policy and Advocacy Rebecca Farley David shared that advocates should know their Representative’s and Senators’ voting record on mental health issues and, when possible, open the meeting by thanking them for their positive support. Noting common experiences or interests—such as you are both alumni of the same school or neighborhood—can also set the tone for a positive meeting.

For those who are not new to advocacy, other breakouts included more advanced topics on understanding the proposed 2018 budget, particularly as it affects our areas of concern through the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act and the 21st Century Cures Act; implications of tele-behavioral health; and strategies for creating a state mobilization program co-presented by Phyllis Foxworth, DBSA Advocacy Vice President.

Over the years, this event has earned respect for being the largest gathering of mental health advocates in Washington. Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), spoke from the general stage, underscoring this event’s importance. Dr. McCance-Katz, who was appointed this past summer, voiced her commitment to supporting evidence-based protocols of care, including peer support.

Dr. Judith Solomon, Vice President for Health Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, was another main stage dignitary. Dr. Solomon drilled down into the numbers, sharing the effects on individual state budgets should some of the proposed Medicaid cuts become law.

But the main attraction—the reason most people were there—began on Tuesday morning. The ballroom at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill was transformed into a jamboree of states, with table placards representing all fifty filling the ballroom. Upon entering the ballroom, advocates located their state and sat with their state delegation as they listened to a pep talk from Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). Long known as a champion of mental health, Senator Stabenow shared how her father was able to recover from multiple bipolar disorder episodes once he received access to the right treatment, going on to lead a healthy and successful life.

Armed with fact sheets outlining “asks,” the advocates walked en masse to Capitol Hill for a group photo on the steps of the Capitol. From there, the people peeled off with their state delegation to begin a full day of meetings. Among the issues the DBSA contingent asked for support for was continued full-funding of SAMHSA for peer support programs. During these meetings, DBSA advocates also pointed out that nearly 50% of insurance plans are employer-sponsored group health plans and, as such, maintaining essential health benefits and pre-existing condition protections is imperative. Others in the delegation shared that without shoring up these plans, we risk people losing their mental health coverage and slipping onto Medicaid coverage—adding to the financial burden of over-stretched state budgets.

Families for Depression Awareness joined with advocates from Massachusetts in speaking with Congresswoman Katherine Clark and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey. In addition to offering effusive thanks for their efforts on behalf of people needing mental and behavioral health care, the discussions focused on expanding the types of professionals who are recognized as providers under Medicaid—thereby entitled to reimbursement for their professional services—and on enlarging the mental health workforce overall so that people with mental health conditions are better able to access professional care.

Have we piqued your curiosity? We encourage you to think about attending next year’s Hill Day next summer! This free, annual event is an affordable way to become educated about the issues and learn how to conduct an advocacy meeting with the safety of being surrounded by other like-minded advocates. To stay informed about the exact date, location, and conference agenda, subscribe to the DBSA advocacy platform. You’ll not only receive timely updates about Hill Day 2018 registration, but valuable information about a wide range of mental health legislation with concrete suggestions and tips on how to advocate.


Your Turn

  • What are the most pressing mental health legislative and policy issues facing the country?
  • If you were attending Hill Day, what would you ask lawmakers to do?

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