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Access to care is a problem. Lack of awareness, cultural barriers and stigma can stop or delay young people from seeking help. Bureaucracy and inadequate systems can make it difficult to find free or affordable care. And too often, there are wait lists for treatment and not enough doctors or beds.

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In schools, symptoms of trauma and other emotional conditions go unrecognized, extinguishing bright futures. When children – who need help – are seen only as a behavior problem, harsh discipline and expulsion become steps on a path toward criminalization, pushing youth with mental illness into street life and leading to incarceration.

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More than half of homeless youth have a mental health condition. On the street, they face new trauma and high risks from violence, crime, sex work and addiction. Most of us have grown up seeing thousands of sick people living on the street, as if that was normal. But it has not always been this way. In time we can restore the broken safety net that used to catch people before they fell and hit bottom.

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Time to end “tough on crime” policies that criminalize adolescent behavior, especially in communities of color. Overincarceration destroys lives, hurts families and makes our streets less safe.

Across the country, prisons and jails have become warehouses for mentally ill youth and adults, where more than 50% suffer from some condition and one in five have a serious mental illness. For incarcerated females, the percentages are much higher. Some prisoners receive substandard treatment; many others get no treatment at all.

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Discrimination and inequality are part of the problem. An LGBTQ student is four times more likely to attempt suicide. People of color face higher rates of mental illness but receive far less treatment. And for those living in poverty, the disparity is much worse.

Everyone deserves equal access to care. Treatment should not be a luxury only for rich kids. We need schools and a criminal justice system to help young people in trouble and divert them to treatment and support.

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Providers or insurance companies are breaking federal law when they minimize, delay or disrupt care. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act requires that mental health treatment be provided like any other medical condition. Illegal denials harm patients and bankrupt desperate families. Know your rights and demand proper care for yourself or someone you know.

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