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Access to mental health care was supposed to have improved by now. But many states are still struggling.

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By NAKELL WILLIAMS, WGXA

MACON, Ga. (CIRCA via WGXA) — Researchers say the state of Georgia is failing people living with mental illness. Georgia and other states across the country were required to improve access to care more than 10 years ago by a federal law.

Ashley Smith of Macon knows what it’s like living with mental illness. She shared her story with Circa partner WGXA and said life was turned upside down by her mental illness, but now she’s helping others.

“I was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 20. Today, my diagnosis has transformed into bipolar disorder and schizophrenia," Smith said.

Smith said she lived very differently than she did 12 years ago, as a misdiagnosed mental illness almost destroyed her life. Smith said she was on a downhill spiral battling voices and paranoia.

“I took a pickup truck and went on a high-speed chase with the police and was eventually arrested. I later learned that the truck belonged to the military, so that made it a felony of course, and I served five months in jail,” Smith said.

Smith had a life-changing discovery after completing a competency test, which led to an official diagnosis.

“They performed a competency test on me so that we could proceed with the trial and the hearing," Smith said. "I failed that competency test, and that’s when they transferred me from the jail to the state hospital."

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Ashley Smith was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 20, but now, the diagnosis is bipolar disorder with schizophrenia. She was able to get help and is an independent mother today.

Medical attention worked for her, but many Georgians often can’t get the care they need, according to a study by MoreHouse School of Medicines’ Kennedy-Satcher Center for Mental Health Equity.

That study said Georgia’s parity statutes gives the state a Grade D. The review cites Georgia's failures to keep up with the demands of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act — a law signed by President George W. Bush more than 10 years ago.

Jewell Gooding with Mental Health America of Georgia said her organization works to improve equity in mental health services across the state.

“Looking at ways that insurance companies can increase access and what does that look it. It’s parity. Do the same type of services you would receive for surgical care, medical care, physical health care, you can also receive for mental health care,” said Gooding, who serves as the organization's executive director. “That is really where our largest focus is right now is increasing access to care, and that looks very different for very different people."

According to the Kennedy-Satcher Report, more than 1 in 18 youth have a mental illness, and 1 in 12 of them have private insurance that does not cover mental health. Researchers said state officials should consider how mental health conditions are covered and how compliance with the parity law is enforced.

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Jewell Gooding of Mental Health America of Georgia tries to make sure the state treats mental health issues and physical health issues equally.

“Sometimes, even if you have insurance, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to wait six months before you can actually see a prescriber,” Gooding said.

Gooding said that while deficiencies exist, resources are still available to people who need help.

“You do have your community service boards, which is the public mental health system in Georgia, where you can try to access and get an appointment to talk to someone. So if you don’t have insurance, they will walk you through whatever steps you can take in order for you to recover the services you need,” Gooding said.

Smith is taking advantage of those resources. She said it helps her maintain a sense of stability to raise her little boy and write books that encourage others battling mental illness.

“Today, I am independent. I’m a mother. I am volunteering," Smith said. "I take on many leadership roles by guiding other people about how to share their story about living with mental illness."

Find information about the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Georgia. You can also call the Georgia Crisis and Access Line for help at 1-800-715-4225 or by texting 741741.

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