As a member of the New York State Assembly’s mental health committee — and the head of the assembly’s veterans’ committee — Assemblywoman Didi Barrett (NY-106) has worked to increase supports for those suffering from mental health issues.
Most recently, she and two fellow Democratic state senators (Senators Elijah Reichlin-Melnick (NY-38) and John Mannion (NY-50)) have banded together to seek a constitutional amendment that will make mental health equal to physical health, otherwise known as mental health parity.
“It recognizes the importance of mental health as a matter of public concern, which is how physical health is currently described,” she said.
Currently, the constitution states the following: “The care and treatment of persons suffering from mental disorder or defect and the protection of the mental health of the inhabitants of the state may be provided by state and local authorities and in such manner as the legislature may from time to time determine.”
Meanwhile, care and protections for physical health are guaranteed by the state’s constitution.
While the constitution was last revised in 2014, the amendments regarding physical and mental health have generally remained intact since 1938.
“I don’t understand exactly what those qualities of our American personality or whatever it is that makes people not be willing to recognize mental health and understand it as a health issue that they don’t have control over any more than anyone who has cancer, heart disease or any other number of physical illnesses,” said Barrett.
Despite the continuing stigma surrounding mental health across the U.S., Barrett hopes to reach a bipartisan consensus around enacting this amendment in Albany.
“I welcome any of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to be part of this,” she said. “This is completely a nonpartisan issue.”
When she speaks to constituents, Assemblywoman Barrett sees that generally everyone agrees with the fact that mental health issues are just as important as physical health conditions.
“Almost uniformly people agree and understand,” she said. ‘I think that in every community, you’re seeing suicide rates increasing, whether it’s communities of color, or rural communities or veteran communities, and people get it.”
A 2020 New York State Office of Mental Health report mentioned that while the statewide suicide rate is the lowest in the nation, African-American and Latinx youth and adolescents, veterans, members of the LGBTQ community and people living in rural areas of the state are among the populations at highest risk for suicide.
Despite the overall low suicide rate, Barrett notes that mental health care in New York state leaves much to be desired.
“I think the programs are pretty skeletal,” she said. “Especially when you look at the whole population, there are some certainly some state-run programs, but often they’re the first ones to get defunded or threatened.”
Most recently, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo suspended the public process by which New York State-run mental health facilities have to adhere to before closing or changing services. While this was due to the pandemic, it allowed for some state hospital administrators to close their inpatient facilities without warning, according to the New York State Nurses Association.
Barrett recognizes that the pandemic has allowed for more people to be open about their mental health struggles, which is why she wants for this amendment to provide a more permanent basis for mental health parity.
“I want to be sure this amendment gets done, because that would be the infrastructure on which to build that long term commitment and understanding,” she said. “We really just need to increasingly make the public aware, and people need to speak out.”