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Using Your Newspaper
As mental health advocates, we often face the challenge how to share the information we have with the community at large. A great resource, which is under utilized, is our local newspapers. Local papers are more likely to write an article about a family situation, or publish a letter to the editor or write an opinion editorial (op-ed) for the newspaper.
How to Write a Letter to the Editor
Letters to the editor appear in the Opinions sections of most newspapers. These letters are written by the readers and published as uncensored reactions. Anyone can write a letter to the editor, but the newspaper will choose what is published. Letters to the editor need to be brief and to the point, because most newspapers have a limited number of words they will publish in this format. It is also important to remember that the chances are good your legislator will read his/her local paper.
- Call your paper and ask for the number of words allowed in writing a letter to the editor.
- Make sure you have the correct name and address of the newspaper.
- Choose the topic you feel most committed to.
- Remember, brief and to the point. People read the first few lines and then make a choice to continue or stop reading.
- Start with the word or words the letter is about. For example, if your topic is depression, start with the word "depression".
- Use words every one can understand. Do not use abbreviations like DHR for the Department of Human Resources because the average citizen does not know what DHR is.
Here is an example letter to the editor:
In this country alone, 19 million Americans will face Depression. Depression is worldwide and knows no boundaries of rich or poor, black to white, republican, or democrat. Yet, stigma and discrimination still keep people from getting the treatment they need. This is a sad fact because Depression is treatable. More than 80% of individuals who seek and receive treatment get better.
What can Georgia citizens do? Call or write their legislator and ask him/her why treatment for mental illness is once again facing reductions in funding. Ask why Georgia restricts access, when all the newer medications are so effective.
What can you do for yourself or a loved one? Have a mental health screening by your doctor. Screening for depression should be part of any complete medical examine.
People with mental illness can and do recover.
How to Write an Op-Ed
Op-eds are also found in the Opinions section of most newspapers. Unlike Letters to the Editor, which are usually unplanned reactions to the latest news, Op-Eds are scheduled to appear by the staff of the newspaper Every newspaper has a different process for accepting guest editorials, so you should call and ask for the individual process.
In this op-ed, note how the authors use data in the second paragraph to place Georgia in the larger context of mental health spending. The following paragraph outlines the consequences of this lack of investment. They then identify some specific programs that may be cut and use data from those programs to document the need for them. The fifth paragraph uses information from federal reviews to add credibility to the complaints raised earlier in the op-ed and the following paragraph strongly makes the point that Georgia is not really saving money by doing this; they're just paying elsewhere, and more. They have two very clear (bolded) "asks" towards the end leaving no doubt as to what is being requested. Oftentimes a specific request to the reader is included.
Here is an example of an op-ed:
Governor Perdue has put forward a bold proposal to remove Mental Health and Addictive Diseases (MHAD) from the Department of Human Resources and create a new Department of Behavioral Health. This is a good first step but does nothing to solve the root problem of inadequate funding.
Community MHAD services are starved and demoralized. As Georgia's population has grown, funding has not kept up. We rank 42nd in the nation in investment in community mental health services. States spend an average of $70. per capita per year providing behavioral health care. Georgia spends a paltry $26.67.
The results are tragic. It is estimated that less than 1/3 of our youth who need behavioral health services receive them. Providers are severely stressed by inadequate rates, restrictive criteria, and slow payment. The adult system fares no better. People are dying in the streets and in the state's mental hospitals because the community system does not have the capacity to provide the care and treatment they need to access recovery and wellness.
Programs that are showing good outcomes are in danger of being closed. Georgia's national model Certified Peer Specialist program is both effective and cost-saving, but it is being scaled back as an austerity measure, even as it is being replicated around the country. State dollars that were allocated for the vital work of substance abuse prevention are now victims of budget cuts, leaving only inadequate federal funds to stem the tide of addiction. Georgia's Crisis and Access Line (GCAL) received nearly 300,000 calls last year, handling 145,000 individual cases. About ¼ were crisis situations, and over 3,000 emergency dispatches were made. Although calls increased 13% last year, GCAL is now proposed to loose funding in an across-the-board 6% cut. If 10% cuts are ordered later in the year, it is slated to be eliminated.
State hospitals are overwhelmed and in crisis as people who can't get community services are admitted again and again. The hospitals, over-crowded, inadequately staffed, and with poor management, are plagued by deaths and abuse. A recent Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services review of one found that patients are in "eminent danger." The federal Department of Justice is investigating.
The broader community is negatively impacted. Georgia's emergency rooms routinely house seriously ill people for days waiting for a state hospital bed. In 2006 they reported $76 million in uncompensated mental health visits. Many people who can't get treatment tragically end up behind bars. It is estimated that 60% of the youth in Department of Juvenile Justice custody have mental illnesses. People with untreated addictive diseases are incarcerated at high rates. More people with mental illnesses are "served" in Georgia's prisons and jails than are served in state mental hospitals. Georgia sheriffs report record numbers of people with behavioral disorders in their jails. Most of these people can and would live successful, productive lives in the community if they could get the help they need there. Georgia's abysmal high school graduation rate continues unabated as youth with untreated mental illnesses and addictive diseases drop out of school at twice the rate of others. This is a terrible, unnecessary waste of potential. When youth have access to the treatment they need, most are successful in school and life.
We applaud the creation of a Department of Behavioral Health, but there must also be adequate funding. MHAD must be exempt from budget cuts and the General Assembly must increase funding to move us to at least the national average so that crisis stabilization, timely treatment, and care management can provide what people disabled by mental illnesses and addictive diseases need to recover and rejoin society as contributing members.
Visionary planning and strong leadership are also needed. To aid in the transition ahead, we urge Governor Perdue to appoint an Interim Board for the new Department of Behavioral Health now. This Interim Board, including consumers, family members and providers, will bring fresh ideas, oversight and community support to the effort to improve Georgia's MHAD system. Lives depend on it.