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NAMI guest speaker discusses taboo subject of mental illness and suicide

PLATTSBURGH Mental illness may often be thought of as a treatable condition, but, as some have learned, treatment may be hard to access. Tom OClair, a family affairs specialist with the state Office of Mental Health in Albany, addressed the membership of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Champlain Valley Monday night. OClair, a staunch supporter of mental illness awareness from Schenectady, discussed the importance of insurance coverage of mental illness treatment. In 2006, OClair and his band of supporters declared victory when Timothys Law, state legislation that requires insurance companies to provide coverage for individuals with mental illnesses, was enacted. The victory, however, was bittersweet, as the crusade to get the law passed stemmed from the tragic death of OClairs son, Timothy. Seven weeks before his 13th birthday, in March 2001, Timothy committed suicide after a five-year struggle with an emotional disorder. Since he was diagnosed, the OClair family sought proper treatment for Timothys mental illness, constantly running into barriers in the insurance system that placed limits on mental health and chemical dependency services. The familys turmoil soon turned into motivation to pursue changes to the health insurance industry that would eliminate discriminatory and unequal insurance coverage for mental health and substance abuse services by insurance companies, according to a description of Timothys Law. The law goes beyond the Federal Mental Health Act enacted in 1996, stating coverage and cost must be on par with all other healthcare services covered under such a policy. So far, that law has been making a difference, said OClair. Weve been hearing reports from family members and people who need the support that its really helped them, said OClair. However, a provision in Timothys Law requires a review of the legislation this fall to determine if it will be renewed in 2009. That is where the community comes in, he said. We need people to call their local legislators, call the governors office, said OClair. We need the grassroots support of individuals and organizations phone-ins, write-ins in order to get the ball rolling and pick up momentum. In addition, OClair said he wants to advocate for a revision in Timothys Law to include those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD. While the issue is prevalent with military men and women who return home from combat, the disorder affects many more, he said. PTSD affects so many different people people who are victims of sexual abuse, violent crime, disaster and everybody who suffers from PTSD needs that coverage, said OClair. The push is on to get it included in Timothys Law now instead of waiting for it to sunset and fight to get [the law] reinstated and add to it. The matter is even more urgent as the State Legislature traditionally breaks for summer recess this month, he added. According to OClair, the nation has lost more military personnel and veterans to suicide than combat. Approximately, 30,000 people a year, he said, are lost to suicide as a result of a mental illness. Thats equal to a commercial jet crashing every other day for a year, OClair said, putting the statistics into perspective for the audience. If we were losing lives to any other event at that rate, this nation would be in an uproar. Suicide is the unspoken outcome of mental illness, he said, going largely unnoticed. Through legislation like Timothys Law and other advocacy work, OClair said he feels the number of people lost to suicide can be decreased, so long as people are willing to speak about what is sometimes considered a taboo subject. Weve lost so many young individuals and those who have survived a traumatic event in their lives to suicide and its a needless loss, said OClair. When we get to the point where we can talk about it openly in the public, we can treat it, we can fund research and we can make it a public health issue that can and will be addressed. It will be a hard battle to get Timothys Law up to the level where it needs to be, to cover as many people with as many diagnoses or issues as possible, added OClair. But, if we can prevent people from taking their own lives, it will all be worth it.

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