Hill Day 2016 – It’s Personal

I spent the past two days at on Capitol Hill attending the National Council for Behavioral Health’s Annual Public Policy Institute and Hill Day. Hill Day is an event that brings together behavioral health providers, administrators, board members, consumers and community members from all over the country. The first day we attended sessions and workshops on federal behavioral health policy. Yesterday we “stormed” Capitol Hill meeting with Congress to advocate for better resources for mental health and addictions.

I learned so much during these two days. I was inspired. I was able to tell my story.

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Sen. Cardin took the time to meet with us at Hill Day.  Sen. Cardin is a Co-Sponsor of the Mental Health in Schools Act

We were told to tell our personal stories to our Congressmen. We were told that we could make a difference. I feel like I made a difference yesterday. I learned during these two days that by telling positive stories of hope – by showing up and telling true stories of how treatment programs work – you can show your legislators and their staff that the programs they fund can really help their constituents.

There were so many people walking around the halls of the Senate and Congressional office buildings. Each one of them had a badge on representing some organization or cause. Everyone thinks that the piece of legislation they are asking their legislator to support is the most important.

By telling our stories, our voices are powerful. I hope that at least one Representative, Senator or Hill Staffer that I met with will remember the story I told – Bryce’s story. It is a story that proves that with the right education programs and treatment, someone living with mental illness can live a stable life. I hope that when going through all of the Bills that he or she has to decide to co-sponsor or vote in favor of or against, maybe Bryce’s story will pop up and it just might make a difference.

I need it to make a difference. Not for me, or for Bryce. But for this country. What I have known, and what I learned even more these past two days, is that we as a country are facing a Mental Health Crisis. Linda Rosenberg, the President of the National Council told us that we have done great over the years raising awareness for Mental Health – but Awareness is not enough, we NEED ACTION. Suicide rates are on the rise. Deaths as a result of overdose are also on the rise. This is Not Acceptable.

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Patrick Kennedy speaking to Hill Day attendees before the advocacy meetings.

Former US Congressman Patrick Kennedy spoke at Hill Day. Kennedy told us that the mental health crisis is affecting our life expectancy rate in America. This is Not Acceptable. He said that Congress needs to Go Big Before they Go Home when it comes to Mental Health legislation. We can not allow Congress to pass a bill that looks good on the surface, that makes Congress “feel good” because they addressed the issue, but in reality has no impact because it does not fund any new programs.

So what exactly did we do at Hill Day?

We asked our legislators to co-sponsor or support several different pieces of legislation. If they already supported it, we thanked them and asked them to try and get it moving to get it passed. Specifically, some of that legislation included:

The Mental Health First Aid Act  (S. 711/H.R.1877) . Mental Health First Aid is a public education program that helps people identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use conditions. When you take the class, you learn a five-step action plan to reach out to a person in crisis and connect them to a professional, peer or other help. This Bill would provide much needed funding to get people trained in Mental Health First Aid at low-cost.

The Mental Health in Schools Act The Mental Health in Schools Act(S. 1588/H.R. 1211) builds on a successful program known as Safe Schools/Healthy Schools. It would expand the availability of comprehensive, school-based mental health and substance use disorder services in communities across the country. It would place on-site qualified mental health and substance use professionals in schools across the county to provide behavioral health services for students at no charge.

Expand the Excellence in Mental Health Act.  (S. 2525/H.R. 4567) The Excellence in Mental Health Act was created as part of the Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014. It was a two-year, 8-state initiative to expand Americans’ access to community-based mental health and addiction care. It lays the foundation for a transformation of our delivery system by setting standards for Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHCs) and establishing a Medicaid payment rate that supports the costs for these clinics. The expansion of the Act would allow all 24-states that are planning for these clinics to continue planning and creating these much needed service systems.

These bills increase services in schools, increase community-based services for those living with mental illness and provide funding to help identify those that need mental health services to provide early-intervention and care. These bills are not controversial. They are common sense.

While Hill Day was inspirational, educational and hopeful, it was also frustrating. Frustrating because although everyone we spoke to told us they agree with us, they understand us, and they listened to us, there is no guarantee anything will get passed.

I hope Congress can find the money to fund these bills. If we do not find the money to fund necessary services for mental health, we will find ourselves falling further into the mental health crisis, and that I know we can not afford.

We ALL have a story to tell.

I urge you to contact your Senators and Representatives and tell your story. Ask them to support one of these bills or other mental health legislation. You can read more about the bills here.

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Karen’s Story – Hope and Recovery

I want to write about a truly remarkable woman who means a lot to me – Karen, Bryce’s birthmother.

It makes sense to write about Karen. Without Karen, there is no Bryce and no story to tell. Without Karen, I would not have the life that I have. Karen is a big reason I am the person that I am today. And I like to think that I am part of the reason that Karen is the person that she is today as well.

When I met Karen, she had just given birth to Bryce and she was handcuffed to a hospital bed. She had just made me a mother and she was beautiful. She asked me to buy her a comb. That was all she wanted. Of course. I went down to the hospital gift shop and got her one. It was the least I could do. She gave me a son – I could give her a comb.

When Bryce was born, Karen was suffering from drug addiction and had been for years. She was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She had a completely different life than me. But she was a smart young woman. I could tell that when I met her. I could also tell that from the amazing letter she wrote to Bryce when he was born. In that letter she told Bryce about the difficult decision she made in choosing adoption, that she chose Terry and I to be his parents and that she loved him very much. They were words that any parent would want their son to hear. I could not have written a better letter if I tried.

Karen struggled with drug addiction for years. She was in and out of jail, hung out with a bad crowd and soon after giving birth to Bryce, lost her mother to a heart attack which just made things worse for her. But Karen did not give up. And I did not give up on her.

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Karen, Bryce and Tracy at the Hope Cottage Christmas Party.  Karen is still dealing with addiction at this time, but sees Bryce through the adoption agency

I cared so much for her for what she had given me, and I wanted to help her. Since we had an open adoption, I wanted to and was able to be in touch with her. Given her background, at first our contact was only through Hope Cottage, our adoption agency. I wished I could have done more for her. I wanted to take her in my arms and tell her how much I loved her and that anything she needed, I would give her. But I couldn’t do that. My responsibility was to Bryce, to do everything I could to take care of him. And at that time, Karen was using drugs and was in and out of jail. Having a close connection to her would not have been in the best interest of Bryce.

I wanted her to know I cared. She was Bryce’s birthmother. I called to check on her when she was in prison and found out I was on her visitor’s list. I had no idea she would put me on her list. It meant so much to me that she put me on her list, that I went and visited her in prison. I was like a fish out of water, but it was an incredible experience. She was so surprised to see me. I just needed to know how she was, and I needed her to know that I thought of her and loved her.

Karen and I stayed in touch. I would send letters to Hope Cottage, she asked for pictures of Bryce, and she wrote letters back.

Years later I found out Karen was clean. She tells me that one day she was in church and “the addiction just left her.” She says that when in jail, she voluntarily admitted herself into a rehabilitation program. She felt that she was only being “warehoused” in jail, and if she didn’t get help, there was no other hope.

When Karen was released, she held on to her Hope. She started attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, got a sponsor and followed their step work. She did service work for others and kept going to church.

Karen has been clean for 7 years. She got a college degree, works full-time and is getting a Master’s in Addiction Counseling.

Karen is a true story of Recovery. It was not an easy road for her, and this does not begin to tell the details of it. But Recovery is possible.

Karen’s story is one of Hope. Mental illness and addiction can drag you down, but there is always a way back up.  We must continue to advocate for funding for recovery programs as well as funding for mental health as the two often go hand in hand.  Bryce’s birthmother is a true example of Strength and Recovery. I know that Strength and Hope have been passed on to Bryce.

Thank you Karen for allowing me to share part of your story. We love you. I know fate brought us together for so many reasons.

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Strength and Hope – Karen and Bryce two years ago during a trip to Dallas