On Saturday, the Mississippi Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention will shine a spotlight on the current suicide crisis.

The group is presenting a “Tune Out the Stigma Music Festival” from 1-8 p.m. at Crossroads Regional Park in Corinth.

Last month, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article, “As Suicides Rise, Insurers Find Ways to Deny Mental Health Coverage.”

Recently-released data on Mississippi’s suicide prevention efforts show that:

  • On average, one person dies by suicide every 20 hours in Mississippi.
  • The state has only three Lifeline crisis call centers.
  • Mississippi had 15,863 calls to the Lifeline crisis line in 2018, but only 5,585 were answered in Mississippi.
  • The number of Lifeline calls that needed answering by Mississippi call centers increased 67 percent from 2016 to 2018.

There are many different mental health issues that may lead to thoughts of suicide.

The Affordable Care Act, combined with the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, mandates that conditions requiring mental health services be covered by health insurers at the same level as physical medical conditions.

However, as Bloomberg reports, health insurers have been using “red tape and a lack of in-network providers” to make it extremely difficult – if not impossible – for people to get the mental health treatment they need.

In March, a federal court ruled against United Healthcare’s practice of applying a more stringent standard in paying claims for mental health services, choosing only to stabilize a patient’s current symptoms rather than paying to treat the underlying condition.

A United Healthcare spokesperson says the insurer abides by state and federal law.

One Ohio therapist who had practiced within a different insurer’s network while in a group practice, applied to be part of the network when she started her own practice. She was denied. When she reviewed the list of the network’s providers, she found names of providers who are not accepting new patients, names of providers who are no longer practicing and even providers who are deceased.

Services for people with mental illness are also concerning in Mississippi on another level.

Last week, the state began a fight against the U.S. Justice Department, according to reporting by Mississippi Today. The Justice Department says the state is violating a 1999 Supreme Court ruling which says the state must provide services to people with mental illness at the same level it does for other people with disabilities, as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

At the heart of the lawsuit is the need to provide mental health services within the community, rather than warehousing people with mental illness in state hospitals.

There continue to be wide gaps in where services are available throughout the state, with only 14 local facilities to cover 82 counties. Many of the state’s residents must travel long distances to those locations.

The state Legislature in 2016 cut the Mississippi Department of Mental Health’s budget by $8.3 million, while delivering $260 million in corporate tax cuts, the largest tax giveaway in the state’s history.

Mississippi’s needs in the area of mental health are many.

Ordinary citizens can play a role in making sure treatment of mental illness is given priority by calling, writing and lobbying state lawmakers.

Lena Mitchell is a retired Daily Journal reporter who continues to write a regular column. Contact her at lena.mitchell.dj@gmail.com.

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