Days after a gunman killed 20 children and six teachers at an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Conn., President Barack Obama issued a challenge to congressional leaders to create a bill that would reform the national mental health care system. Nearly two years later, the legislation has yet to reach the Oval Office.
This week, thousands of people from across the country hope to reinvigorate the movement for mental health care reform during their visit to Washington, D.C. The visitors converged on the U.S. Capitol on Thursday afternoon and spoke with their elected officials as part of the “National Day of Action for Mental Health,” an effort to make comprehensive mental health care reform come to fruition.
“It’s been two years,” Mary Giliberti, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), said in a press release. NAMI, the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of those affected by mental illness, led National Day of Action for Mental Health activities as part of its annual conference, themed Advocates for Change: From Dialogue to Action. “There has been dialogue and some progress since last year’s White House Conference on Mental Health, but the country is still waiting for Congress to act,” said Giliberti.
Congressional leaders have been slow to build consensus around comprehensive mental health reform due in part to the ascent of two pieces of legislation: Rep. Tim Murphy’s (R-PA) Helping Families in Mental Crisis Act and Rep. Ron Barber’s (D-AZ) Strengthening Mental Health in Our Communities Act.
Murphy introduced his bill in December and garnered support among 96 lawmakers, including more than 20 Democrats. His bill contains provisions that would make the receipt of funds from mental health block grants contingent on states expanding its civil commitment — a process by which courts order severely mentally ill people to receive psychiatric treatment. The bill would also strengthen oversight of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, change the relationship between caregivers and patients’ families as outlined in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and allow psychiatric treatment in hospitals through Medicaid.
Barber’s bill, unlike that of Murphy’s, would provide treatment resources for veterans. While lawmakers have noted some key differences between both bills, Ron Honberg, the director of policy and legal affairs at NAMI, highlighted many similarities — including resources for suicide prevention, the allocation of funds that divert mentally ill people from correctional facilities, funds for school-based mental health services, protection of access to psychiatric medication in Medicaid and Medicare, the improvement of health information technology for mental health records, and the integration of mental and physical healthcare.
“The way our mental health system works is that they wait until the crisis unfolds,” Honberg told ThinkProgress. “That’s not only the worst possible way but also the most expensive way of responding to someone in need. There has been some talk about this issue since Sandy Hook but little progress has been made in addressing it. There are so many similarities between Murphy’s and Barber’s bills, so lawmakers should be able to find common ground and pass comprehensive mental health care legislation this year.”
A group of speakers that included former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), Virginia State Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-VA), and recording artist and health advocate Demi Lovato kept the theme of collaboration and destigmatization alive and well during on Thursday morning during the Opening Legislative Plenary in the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel Ballroom.
Before taking coach buses to the U.S. Capitol, more than 1,500 members of NAMI state affiliate organizations listened as the trio touched on their personal bouts with mental illness and that of their family members. Each speaker drew parallels between mental illness and other chronic diseases, like diabetes and cancer.
“Don’t those with brain illnesses deserve the same care as any other care?” Kennedy asked audience members on Thursday. “[Today] you’re going to go up there and make sure it’s about treating the brain like any other organ of the body. Rather than letting Congress get lost in the details, we should keep it simple. If it were cancer or diabetes, there would be a revolution. This is a simple issue. We should never think about turning away people with mental illness.”
Deeds, this year’s recipient of the NAMI Richard Greer Advocacy Award, later expressed his determination to make Virginia a leader in mental health care. Last year, Deeds’ son Gus injured the senator before taking his own life, a traumatic event that compelled the older Deeds to take on mental health care issues with vigor. Deeds, a state legislator for nearly 23 years, challenged the audience to do their part to ensure that the stigmatization of the mentally ill no longer persists.
“I would give anything to not be in this position today,” said Deeds shortly after receiving his award. “When my world changed last November, I knew I had to… devote my life to help people discuss mental health openly and reduce the likelihood that this would happen again. I know that too many people and their families live in crisis. It’s unconscionable that so many people suffering from mental illness are locked away.”
While more than 61 million Americans suffer from a mental illness, less than 30 percent of them seek mental health care, according to a survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. People who do not seek treatment for their mental disorders will most likely have fewer opportunities to enjoy school, work, and social activities. Experts say that cuts in mental health services have shifted resources from community-based treatment centers to prisons. The mental patient population in American prisons as a result has more than quadrupled between the late 1990s and mid-2000s, as outlined in a Treatment Advocacy Center report released in April.
That’s why for many NAMI members, including Rachelle Martin, the fragile state of the national mental health care system requires the immediate attention of congressional lawmakers. Martin, executive director of NAMI’s Franklin County chapter in Ohio since 2009, said she joined the fight against mental illness after seeing her cousins suffer from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia without much institutional support.
During an interview with ThinkProgress, Martin expressed her plans to chat with U.S. Congressional Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) about the feedback she’s received during sessions of Tea & Tears, a NAMI support group that allows people with mental disorders to chat among one another.
“People take part in our support group because they know that they’re among people that they can talk to,” said Martin. “People always ask me how they can get help. The mentally ill are getting discriminated against and the stigma is too powerful. This affects people of different colors so racism goes out of the window during our Tea & Tears meetings. It’s about people coming together and sharing what’s happening in their families.”