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OPINION: Nathan Crabbe: Talk is cheap about mental health

The Gainesville Sun - 2/14/2020

Feb. 14--Whenever The Sun publishes a piece that refers to a "stigma" around mental illnesses, a retired editor from Fort Myers often writes to discourage use of the term.

One of his arguments is that using the term perpetuates a stigma rather than helps eliminate it. So when Maggie LaBarta spoke Monday at the Florida Free Speech forum in Gainesville, I was glad to hear that she translated the term into what it really means.

LaBarta, who recently retired as CEO and president of Gainesville-based Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, said she considers the term to be "a euphemism for discrimination and prejudice."

LaBarta said that discrimination and prejudice can be seen when people who have mental illnesses are incarcerated without proper treatment, or treated like they are morally or otherwise flawed rather than having an illness.

She also took issue with another phrase that I must confess to having used: "mental health issues," rather than mental illnesses.

"We talk about people having mental health issues ... (but) we don't talk about cancer issues or diabetes issues," LaBarta said.

But problems with the language used about mental illnesses go beyond such euphemisms. There also are politicians who say the right things about improving treatment for people with mental illnesses, only to back policies that achieve the opposite result.

The Trump administration is an example. Joe Grogan, director of the White House'sDomestic Policy Council, recently wrote a piece for The Washington Post in which he claimed that President Donald Trump's proposed new budget "will finally bring hope" for those with serious mental illnesses and drug addictions.

The budget includes some funding increases for mental-health programs but far greater overall health care cuts. Like in his State of the Union address, Trump publicly acts like a health care champion while in reality working to gut the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and other programs expanding access to care.

We have a similar problem in Florida. While mental-health initiatives such as those launched by Florida first lady Casey DeSantis should be lauded, they don't make up for her husband and other Republican leaders opposing Medicaid expansion and failing to adequately fund health care.

As LaBarta noted, Florida ranks last among states in per capita mental health funding -- and would need to spend $1.8 billion more just to reach the national median.

"Florida has become about as efficient as you can become with very little funding," she said.

Having politicians and journalists become more comfortable with talking and writing about mental illnesses, and avoiding euphemisms, represents progress. But using the right terms only goes so far when you oppose policies and programs that actually help people with mental illnesses get health care.

-- Nathan Crabbe is The Sun's opinion and engagement editor.

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