“Walk a Mile” rally promotes change from Michigan legislators

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Protesters line the steps of the Michigan Capital building.

PJ Pfeiffer

Protesters line the steps of the Michigan Capital building to raise awareness of mental health.

On Sep. 13, roughly 2,000 Michigan citizens covered the stairs and walkways of the Michigan Capitol for the “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” rally to bring more attention to mental and public health and wellness. 

The main organization that organized this rally is the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan (CMHA), with different associated organizations that represent 46 counties in Michigan.

The rally included people sharing their personal experiences, as well as people who have been impacted by the use of community behavioral health services.

Statistics in Michigan regarding mental health

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), about 1.5 million adults in Michigan have a mental health condition. And more than half of people with a mental health condition in the U.S. did not even receive any treatment in the last year, mainly because of how much it costs or how unaccessible getting help was. 

CMHA Associate Director Alan Bolter has been working with the association since 2009 and is currently the head of their advocacy, public policy and policy lobbying. Bolter said that CMHA represents Michigan’s public mental health system, which includes 46 community mental health agencies plus 10 prepaid inpatient health plans. Those prepaid inpatient health plans are the public health plans for behavioral health in Michigan. To him, this rally is extremely important for people who believe in this issue and want to make it more publicized, creating a difference in the future.

“It’s a rally about people that are served, people that are impacted with mental illness, really to stand up against the stigma that many individuals with mental illness face on a day-to-day basis,” Bolter said. “We’re just like everybody else: your neighbors, your family, your friends.”

Citizens attend a rally to enhance public awareness and educate legislators about mental health. Photo by PJ Pfeiffer.

CMHA’s goals

CMHA’s first goal is to enhance public awareness and educate legislators about why mental health matters. They want to inform voters and lawmakers of the public behavioral health system and areas that need enhancement: access to services, integrated healthcare, and workforce recruitment and retention.

In May 2022, 27.8% of Michigan adults reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder who had an unmet need for counseling or therapy. 

Change needs to happen; end the stigma of mental and public health issues and allow for more resources and money for people to be able to get help, supporters said.

Chelsea Oliver is the public relations strategist at LifeWays, the community mental health organization supporting Jackson and Hillsdale counties. Oliver has been with LifeWays for three years and two years prior with a different mental health organization. To her, the stigma that people receive is one of the reasons why they are not getting the help that they need.

“One of the biggest barriers for people accessing care, specifically mental health care services, is the stigma around mental health care services, and people thinking that it’s something to be ashamed of or that they are scared to approach or talk about their mental health,” Oliver said. “The more we talk about it, the more we have big events where there are thousands of people, and the more people feel comfortable talking about it, and it breaks down that barrier to accessing that mental health care.”

Oliver believes that ending the stigma can and hopefully will bring change from legislators to make a difference in all of the counties in Michigan, giving a splurge of resources to adults and children. 

One of the most prevalent mental health issues in the U.S., specifically Michigan, are depression and anxiety. As of Feb 2023, 29.9% of adults in Michigan reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder, compared to 32.3% of adults in the U.S. On the other hand, according to NAMI, 57.8% of Michiganders aged 12-17 who have depression did not receive any care in the last year. 

Although anxiety and depression aren’t as common in Michiganders as seen above, there is one other main mental and public health issue that affects a portion of citizens of Michigan which CMHA hopes to receive more support from legislators and future work: substance abuse.

According to a 2023 survey by Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on medical care and health issues in the United States, drug overdose death rates have increased in Michigan from 14.3 people per 100,000 in 2011 to 31.5 people per 100,000 in 2021. Julie Rookard, outreach and education community mental health coordinator for Central Michigan, has been a part of the organization for 14 years and has come to this “Walk a Mile” rally each year. She can recount patients with these issues and how important change is for health care.

“Working for a mental health agency, I see firsthand how important it is that our legislators are aware of the importance of mental health care and what’s going on in the state and throughout the state, not just here in Lansing,” Rookard said. “[We need to] keep increasing participation and awareness, and helping the people we serve.”

With more awareness and change comes more funding and resources available for people in Michigan who need help. According to the Medicaid Utilization Net Costs reports, Michigan’s public mental health system spends only 6% of funding on administration with no funds in the form of profits to shareholders and dedicating 94% of Medicaid dollars to persons with mental health needs. In Feb 2021, 421,000 adults in Michigan did not receive needed mental health care, whereas 38.4% did not because of cost. 

These are all problems that, with the CMHA, will hopefully be taken care of, as Michigan legislators will allow for more accessible and affordable behavioral health care for all citizens. Furthermore, we’ve seen the data that is present for adults in Michigan who are affected by the unaffordable costs. 

However, these goals might be visible in the foreseeable future as Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan, explained that she is working with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and is expanding access to mobile response teams to address crises for young people. 

Five Community Mental Health Services Programs are receiving more than $900,000 in grants through the mobile response grant program. The CMHA of Clinton, Eaton, and Ingham Counties will be receiving $199,914. The Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network will be receiving $200,000. The Genesee Health System will be receiving $200,000. The Gratiot Integrated Health Network will be receiving $105,319 and the Saginaw County Community Mental Health Authority will be receiving $200,000.

CMHA will continue to fight for mental and public health rights while Michigan legislators decide whether to create change for the future of Michigan residents who suffer or may suffer, from mental or public health issues.

“Our voices deserve to be heard; the people we serve voices deserve to be heard,” Oliver said.

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