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Advocating for the Mentally Ill

Off the Cuff with NAMI's Peter Hoeffel

Jun. 13, 2017
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NAMI Greater Milwaukee Executive Director Peter Hoeffel

Considering the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s (NAMI) estimate that one in five adults experiences mental illness in their lifetime, it’s still somewhat baffling that individuals with mental illness and their families face large amounts of discrimination. Originally founded as a means to unify and support family members of those with mental illness, NAMI has transitioned into the largest grassroots mental health organization in the nation with chapters in all 50 states. Providing education, support and advocacy, NAMI Greater Milwaukee offers peer support groups, family support groups and relevant classes as it continues to fight for those affected by mental illness. Off the Cuff recently spoke with NAMI Greater Milwaukee Executive Director Peter Hoeffel about the state of Milwaukee County’s public mental health system, the opioid crisis and the stigma surrounding mental illness.


What do you think of the current state of the public mental health system in Milwaukee County?

It faces many challenges. For the longest time, the funding has been put into acute services, including hospitalization, and that’s funding that could be more appropriately used in community mental health services to keep people out of the hospital. We’ve been stuck in a historical, outdated system of providing care to someone after they’ve already become very ill. Milwaukee County is really trying to get out of that, but it’s been going on for so long that it’s very hard to undo the system. Services are going to inpatient care and crisis care rather than to the community where people can stay well and healthy.


Can you explain mental health parity?

Health insurance companies used to be able to cap the level of mental health care they would provide, so parity means to make it equal to any other health condition. There was a federal law passed on health parity requiring that if a health insurance policy covers mental health they have to cover it at the same level as any other health condition. The problem with that right now, with perhaps the undoing of the Affordable Care Act, is that it may be stripped away. So that’s a big concern. People should be heavily involved with contacting their representatives to make sure that mental health parity stays because if the Affordable Care Act is undone, repealed, replaced, we could go back to the situation where health insurance companies put a cap on mental health services.


What other concerns do you have about the state of the Affordable Care Act?

Part of it is just preexisting conditions. Everyone who has a preexisting condition, a mental illness, could face not being eligible for coverage and the changes to Medicaid may also limit funding for mental health services as well.


What are your thoughts on the opioid crisis? What needs to happen policy wise?

From my perspective, it’s always been a crisis. I’ve always believed the policy should be treatment and not incarceration. For the longest time people have been punished for their addiction. Now it’s finally getting the attention it deserves. To be controversial, you know, when it was affecting people from minority communities or people with lower incomes, people were just fine with putting them in prison. Now that it’s affecting white suburban communities, people are taking notice and want to make sure that the treatment is there.


Has the stigma of mental illness increased or decreased in recent years?

The stigma has definitely decreased in recent years. And it’s been through efforts by organizations like ours, Mental Health America, other organizations and agencies, and the individuals that live with mental health diagnoses that have had the courage to come out and talk about it. What we’ve found is, the more that people are willing to talk about their diagnosis, the more the stigma is reduced. There are many people who live wonderful, productive lives with mental illness but are often afraid to come out, and rightfully so, because of discrimination. Now, more people that have depression and bipolar disorder are willing to talk about it and share their stories about doing well, because it seems that the only information people get is when someone is not doing well. We find that people sharing their stories about doing well and living in recovery goes a long way to reducing stigma, and there’s been a lot of efforts in the last five years to do that.


To learn more about NAMI Greater Milwaukee, visit namigrm.org or call 414-344-0447.


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