A first step in addressing the mental health aspect of mass shootings

When the omnibus spending bill was signed into law by the president, most of the attention was – quite understandably – on the big-ticket items: defense, border security, health care and the like.

But included in that budget was a $15 million gem that is an important positive step for those of us working to reduce the incidence of gun-related violence.

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The legislation included $15 million for Mental Health First Aid training – a program I have been calling for since I took office more than 1½ years ago.

Let me explain why this funding is so important:

In the wake of the mass shootings in Tucson, in Newtown and elsewhere, I and many of my colleagues in Congress – both Republicans and Democrats – understood  that we must work together to prevent such tragedies.

While there is no single answer to preventing mass shootings, we know that untreated or undiagnosed serious mental illness has been a factor in a number of the recent tragedies.

It was a factor in the January 2011 shooting in Tucson.

The young man who killed six people and wounded 13 of us in Tucson had displayed symptoms of serious mental illness for at least two years prior to the shooting. And yet he never received a mental illness diagnosis or treatment – until he was sent to prison.

People who knew the shooter did not understand what he was going through or how to get him help. So we are left to ask, “Could this tragedy have been prevented if he and others had been provided mental health services?” I believe several of the recent mass shootings could have been averted if the public was more aware of the indications of mental illness and how to get help.

We must do more to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. And we must invest in the early identification of mental illness and in treatment programs.

Nationally, 60 percent of people living with a mental illness are not receiving the services that they need. We must do better. Mental illness, like so many other illnesses, can be recognized and will respond to treatment.

It is important to note that more than 95 percent of individuals living with a mental illness are not violent. They are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

It is clear, however, that we must expand mental health awareness of and treatment services for 100 percent of individuals living with mental illness. That is why I worked with Republicans and Democrats last year to introduce the Mental Health First Aid Act.

This legislation will provide training to first responders, educators, students, parents and the general public on how to identify and respond to signs of mental illness.

The $15 million in the budget bill begins nationwide implementation of this crucial program.

As mental illness impacts the lives of millions of Americans and their families and too many mental health disorders continue to go unaddressed and untreated, we must make prudent investments to support mental health awareness in our communities.

We should have acted after six people were killed in Tucson two years ago. We should have acted after seven people were killed in Oakland. Or 12 people killed in Aurora. Or six people killed in Oak Creek. Or 26 children and adults killed in Newtown. Or 12 people killed at the Washington Navy Yard.

We had so many opportunities to act.

Now we have begun to act by funding Mental Health First Aid training. When the president signed the bill, an important first step was taken.

This single act won’t solve everything. But if it prevents just one death, it will be money very well spent.

Barber has represented Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District since 2012. He sits on the Armed Services; the Homeland Security; and the Small Business committees. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter at RepRonBarber or contact him through his website at barber.house.gov.