In the year since Adam Lanza opened fire on innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the need to reform our nation’s gun laws has been clear and, unfortunately, been met with indifference by our elected representatives. But the necessity to revamp our approach to mental health care has also been painfully evident, so that the unhinged and homicidal, like Lanza and all too many others, can be spotted and treated before they can harm themselves or others.
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, the Upper St. Clair Republican and trained psychologist, has introduced a promising, comprehensive bill that would increase the federal stake in combating mental illness and make treatment more widely available. While the inertia of this Congress should not be underestimated, Murphy’s measure, dubbed the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, belongs near the top of lawmakers’ agenda.
When he introduced it at a Washington, D.C., news conference Dec. 12, Murphy pointed out that “those who need help the most are getting it the least because the nation’s mental-health system is broken.” To help repair it, Murphy’s bill would place a new assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services who would deal exclusively with mental health and substance abuse problems and allow families greater access to information while a loved one is undergoing treatment. Over a four-year span, $60 million would go to outpatient treatment programs administered by courts, counties and cities, and $50 million would be targeted at 10 states to improve community health clinics. Medicaid rules would also be modified so that it would cover a greater number of doctor visits and some types of medication. Nine million dollars would go to pilot programs in select states to improve psychiatric care in rural areas, done in part through telepsychiatry, where tools like videoconferencing and email are used to assess and treat patients in remote locations.
While Murphy’s promise that all this would be paid for by, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, “redirecting funds that are going to programs that aren’t working” is fairly vague, there’s a great deal of evidence that we are spending copious amounts of money as it is on the mentally ill, except it’s going to incarcerate them. As the Journal reported earlier this year, jails and prisons are now serving the function that state hospitals did before deinstitutionalization in the 1960s and 1970s released thousands of mentally ill individuals out onto the streets. Close to 1 in 10 inmates in the Illinois and Michigan state prison systems are believed to suffer from serious mental illnesses, while that number stands at 15 percent in Montana. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that $9 billion comes out of our wallets annually to treat mentally ill prisoners across the country. Of course, if they had received treatment earlier, or in a setting more appropriate to intensive treatment, they might not have landed behind bars in the first place.
Mental illness has long been shrouded in shame, secrecy and mystery. But ignoring it, or offering substandard treatment, can have severe consequences. Murphy’s proposal would be a positive step toward creating a mental health care system that is equal to the problem. As the congressman said, “I don’t want to wait until the next crisis. I don’t want to wait until the next headline or the next set of funerals.”