The tragedies at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech made headlines for the seemingly random violence. However, if anything positive emerged from this carnage, it was the increased awareness of mental health issues. We cannot ignore the resulting mental health effects on the community members affected by the disasters. We must ask ourselves if these people ? and countless others suffering from mental illness nationwide ? have access to the quality treatment they need.

Here in Wisconsin, Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton is championing the fight for improved mental health treatment and awareness. She proclaims today Mental Health Parity Action Day, where more than 250 organizations ? including health care providers, the University of Wisconsin, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the American Heart Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ? and citizens from across the state lobby legislators to support the bipartisan Senate Bill 375 for mental health parity in insurance.

Under the bill, insurance plans that currently provide for mental health care must do so adequately and comparably to the physical health coverage. Thus, parity: the same benefits and same limits for health care coverage, regardless of its manifestation as physical or mental illness.

The bill in itself is not the earth-shaking reform our health care system needs ? but it is a necessary first step. And we need to be taking every step forward that we can toward achieving the goal of true universal and comprehensive health care.

Ms. Lawton has emphasized that the one major obstacle to this progress is that ?insurance companies are against paying claims.?

?There is a long-standing misunderstanding of mental illness,? Ms. Lawton said. ?The health insurance industry has made absolutely glacial progress in having their coverage line up with what constitutes good preventive health care.?

With mental health parity, Ms. Lawton pointed out, the cost of care for every other related illness goes down. The Wall Street Journal estimates the cost of untreated mental illness at over $90 billion a year, including lost productivity and resulting medical expenditures. Investing in mental health treatment now would lessen that burden on our already exhausted health care system.

Untreated mental illness has far-reaching problems. It is a risk factor in everything from intestinal problems to gum disease and from heart disease to cancer. Mental health parity is an essential step toward changing our current ?disease-care? system back into a health care system.

Mental health awareness is a growing concern on college campuses as well, where high-stress lifestyles compromise education achievement. Bob McGrath, director of UHS Counseling and Consultation Services, said UHS has ?definitely seen an increase? in the use of counseling services and ?the intensity and severity of situations coming in are more challenging every year.? Further, ?people who wouldn?t have been able to get into this school in the past? now excel here with the availability of better mental health treatment.

After the Virginia Tech tragedy, the UW System began an audit of university mental health services. According to Mr. McGrath, UHS should be the model for other smaller schools, and they ?need to move in our direction.? The annual Big Ten Counseling Center conference begins today on campus, and the quality of mental health services provided by UHS ?fit right in with that level.?

Today, on one end of State Street we will have university health providers from across the country meeting to discuss improving mental health services. On the other end of State Street at the Capitol, we have Ms. Lawton leading the fight for expanding access and affordability of mental health treatment, coming to the table with actual data that will hopefully make for an easy decision for insurance companies and the Legislature.

Equity in insurance coverage is an absolutely vital step toward improving the health of our nation and cutting the cost of care in the long run. However, mental health parity in insurance will be meaningless if it is not matched by parity in awareness and improved services at the health care provider level. According to Ms. Lawton, one in five American adults will have a mental health problem in their lifetime that requires treatment.

?We assume it is a choice. We assume it is a weakness,? she said. ?We can no longer afford the status quo in Wisconsin.?

Wisconsin is at the bottom of the pile when it comes to mental health. Forty-two other states already require mental health parity. Our great progressive state is one of the final eight, and yet still there is heated opposition from legislators and insurance companies.

Now that depresses me.

Suchita Shah ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in neurobiology.