My father taught a government class in high school, but sadly, I've never been a political aficionado. I haven't been one to watch C-Span for hours, and if it's not about mental health, I don't track the intricacies of who is supporting who on what bill. But all of that may have changed. I had the most interesting experience last month when I was invited to testify in front of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Subcommittee on Health, about mental health treatment for vets returning home from the war.
You have to work pretty hard to avoid noticing the news coverage about the numbers returning home from the war with serious mental illnesses ... and about the woeful lack of easily accessible treatment available to these men and women.
While the VA system has consistently been committed to providing high quality mental health treatment to vets, the system is clearly overloaded. And a fast injection of help is needed to meet the demand it's facing ... and will continue to face as vets come home. The recently enacted suicide helpline is a good step forward, but we need better systems in place so that vets don't get to the place where they need to consider calling a suicide hotline.
At any rate, I was honored by the request that I testify on behalf of the mental health consumer community about what's needed as we move forward.
I hope everyone has the chance to visit the Hill at some point or another because it really is impressive: the graceful buildings on tree-lined pavement ...the long, white marble corridors that echo as you walk down them ... the tiny rooms set aside for our representatives with staff practically sitting on each other and one or two lone chairs in tiny, cramped waiting areas ... the ornate hearing rooms with their formal seating for members of Congress ... the flags and ornate carvings and heavy velvet drapes at the high, high windows. I wondered who had sat before me in the same chair I was in as I prepared to make my remarks, all alone at the long wooden table facing the committee members with three microphones in front of me. It was both terrifying and thrilling.
What impressed me most about the whole event was the seriousness with which the committee members took their work, the tough questions they asked of me and others. I had the sense that, despite any political games that were being played, there was a deep sense of purpose and a great commitment to both the process and, most especially, the outcome. I came away feeling that the committee members were most worried about the issues and very committed to pushing forward solutions.
I've been lucky enough to visit congressional members before in their offices and have been fortunate enough to meet with their staff on many occasions. And while my messages aren't always received well, and I don't always have the sense that any immediate action will occur as a result of the meetings, I always come away knowing that my right to express my opinion is sacred. Somehow, it doesn't matter if I am the president of a national mental health organization that serves over four million people each year-or a teacher or housewife or a businessman. I never really thought that was true until I began going to visit my congressmen.
Gloria Pope, our DBSA director of advocacy and public policy, once told me that it takes as few as five letters from constituents to influence the stand a legislator takes on a bill. I've come to understand her even better after sitting in the waiting rooms of congressional members, watching their staff sort mail and report to their supervisors about how many constituents wrote about one side of an issue or the other. If you cannot testify in front of a committee-and I hope you're able to do that if it's something you want to do-there are many other ways you can influence how things do happen in Washington, D.C. Visit our online Legislative Action Center to find out how you can send your own letter on issues you care about in less than 30 seconds.
If you're interested in checking out my testimony and that of the others who testified before the House Subcommittee that day last month, visit the following link: http://veterans.house.gov/hearings/schedule110/july07/07-19-07/witness.shtml
We have a lot of work to do in order to meet the needs of the men and women who have served our country in this war. But I have some optimism that there are people who take this very seriously and are doing their best to make things better.
Published On: August 22, 2007
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