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The current mental health care system, as we know it, is hardly a system at all.

Care is uncoordinated and often unavailable; where it is available, it is often poorly advertised or explained.  Earlier this year, President Obama convened the National Conference of Mental Illness” where advocates, educators, health care providers and faith leaders, members of Congress and representatives from local governments – came from all over the country to talk about ways to work together to increase understanding and awareness about mental health issues.  That was a great start—I love it!

Mental health concerns are not prominently or routinely addressed in African-American communities—although we are making some headway. National studies show that the prevalence rates for mental health conditions are generally the same or slightly less for African-Americans compared to the general population.  However, the burden of mental health conditions for African-American families and communities is often greater due to limited access and engagement in mental health services, lower rates of treatment and poorer quality care leading to worse outcomes. Families are often reluctant to seek care due to the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health conditions, difficulties in finding appropriate services and lack of understanding of both the mental health condition and the complex service system.

As of October 1, 2013 the wheels of Obamacare will began to roll, paving the way for affordable health care. Although the website had a few glitches due to millions of individuals visiting the website, individuals will be able search exchanges for affordable health care. As it pertains to mental health, services will be more accessible and insurance companies will no longer be able to deny anyone coverage because of a pre-existing mental health condition. This is big…and why some members of Congress are against Obamacare, not giving it a chance to work and shutting down the government because of, it is puzzling to me.

Moving forward, because Obamacare is the “law of the land” the first step would be to assist Americans in identifying what mental illness looks like, feels like and sounds like.  Introducing new programs, awareness campaigns through a myriad of organizations, houses of worship and schools, can do this. The key messaging should be transparent, focused and understood that if a mental disorder is left undiagnosed and untreated, the outcome will be dire and/or lethal. Once an individual removes his or her mask amidst all the myths and stigmas surrounding the taboo topic of mental illness, and has the courage to seek treatment, services should be readily available– the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) does just that.

I have read most of the components of the Affordable Care Act and wanted to share my interpretation of how it will affect the mental health community:

Mental health care will become more accessible to more people. With the passage of the federal mental health parity law a few years ago, many insurers were required to treat mental disorders with the same coverage limits as any other disease or health concern. While this has helped many people obtain needed treatment without having to jump through as many insurance company hoops, it hasn’t really mattered much to the poor — who didn’t have insurance coverage in the first place. With more people obtaining either private insurance or joining an expanded Medicaid program, the bet is that more people who have inexpensive access to mental health treatment will utilize it.

People won’t be denied coverage based upon their pre-existing condition. This is a vast step for many people with mental health concerns. Changing employers or insurance providers often meant having to pretend that a pre-existing psychiatric diagnosis didn’t exist. The new law says that you can’t discriminate against a person because of a pre-existing condition. This means that more people will get the care they need and have it covered by their insurance plan. It also means an insurance plan can’t cancel your coverage for a pre-existing condition,–something that was problematic for many in the past.

People will get better overall care. The law is designed to help increase incentives to physicians and other health and mental health professionals to look after people across the entire continuum of care. It’s also focused on preventative care, which can help keep a person out of the hospital.

One in five Americans suffers some form of mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, schizophrenia or PTSD. Chances are you probably know someone who struggles with these issues … or you might have struggled yourself. We must focus on creative outreach tactics that will make people feel safe about getting help. I will be introducing and lending my voice to life-transitioning programs for people suffering from mental illness.

There is light at the end of the tunnel and I encourage you to take the time to read and familiarize yourself with the benefits of the Affordable Care Act and judge for yourself by visiting www.hhs.gov. Then, “If you see something, say something”

Stay strong and stay tuned…

Jennifer Jones contributed to this article.

Terrie M. Williams is a mental health activist and the author of Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting