09/14/2012 04:08 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2012

Fight for Equality in Mental Health Coverage

Nearly every day in the news we hear about key public figures and individuals from all walks of life facing challenges with mental health and behavioral problems, problems such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and many others. These are real people: our loved ones, our colleagues, our neighbors next door.

It is estimated that 1 in 4 Americans experiences a diagnosable mental health problem, while 1 in 17 lives with a serious illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. And now more than ever, we have veterans coming home in great numbers with chronic traumas that need just as much treatment as the physical injuries that ail them. On average, 18 veterans and one active-duty service member take their own lives every single day -- that is one too many.

If you turn the 1 in 4 Americans into real numbers, approximately 54 million Americans live with mental illness and 26 million with an addiction-related problem. Yet many people carrying what are perceived to be quality employer-sponsored health plans that cover both physical and mental health benefits face blatant inequality when they seek treatment for psychological problems as compared to physical problems.

To be more concrete, an individual can visit a physician countless times for a medical condition and pay an average of $10 for a copayment, yet if that same person seeks treatment for depression or anxiety, for example, he or she is usually limited to 20 visits to see a psychologist and can expect to pay $25 or more per visit.

If I haven't grabbed your attention by now, perhaps consider the cost of untreated mental health problems: upward of about $200 billion a year nationally when you factor in the impact on the family, unemployment, medical care, incarceration, reduced educational attainment, and even homelessness.

Federal law has always allowed insurers to discriminate, so many have come to expect this as the status quo. But the good news is that's all beginning to change for the better.

Thanks to the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Law of 2008, which is now being enforced, all Americans with health plans that include mental health benefits can finally expect equity in their coverage. That means a health plan may not enforce a treatment limitation or financial requirement on mental health/substance abuse benefits unless the same limit is placed on medical benefits.

Although millions rely on mental health benefits, most don't know that they have this right. The Chicago School of Professional Psychology is proud to participate in the advancement of this effort to spread the word about this important law. On Sept. 18 at our downtown Los Angeles campus, we are hosting the only west coast Congressional Field Hearing with lead co-sponsor of the law and former Representative Patrick J. Kennedy along with other officials and community partners to call for full enforcement of this law.

Mental health illnesses should be treated no differently than any physical illness in the body. The days of stigmatizing mental illness, of turning our backs on those who need our help, of walking away from this problem, are over. We know that being our own health advocate is paramount to ensuring we receive the best care available. I offer that we each have a responsibility to ensure those that cannot advocate for themselves are supported by those of us who can make these differences real for everyone in need.

I encourage you to attend this forum. If you're in the area, please RSVP at If you can't attend in person, register to watch online.

For more by Michele Nealon-Woods, click here.

For more on mental health, click here.