Mental Health First Aid Act: Ideal opportunity for bipartisan support

Mental illness is a disease that knows no race, gender, socio-economic background or political party.  It impacts Americans from all walks of life.  Improving the way this country addresses mental illness should be a priority for the nation, and it is an issue ideally suited for transcending Washington’s partisan political divide.

That is one reason why we have seen strong, bipartisan support for legislation that we have introduced: the Mental Health First Aid Act.  This legislation would provide support for an innovative and effective training program to help the public identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness.

ADVERTISEMENT
Over the course of the last year, one in five Americans has experienced mental illness.  Nearly half of these individuals go without care, either because they cannot afford it or, more often, because they do not know where to go or what to do.  We need to change this, and Mental Health First Aid can help.

Mental Health First Aid is an eight-hour course that trains those on the front lines – law enforcement and corrections officers, first responders, teachers, clergy, veterans, and others serving in the community – how to recognize the signs, symptoms, and impact of mental illness and addiction and what to do about it.

The program does not seek to substitute the years of study required to become a mental health professional.  Instead, through role-playing and simulations, participants learn how to most effectively approach an individual struggling with mental illness or in a mental health crisis and then direct that person to a mental health professional.

The course addresses the risk factors and warning signs of specific mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and substance use disorders.  The training provides participants with the basic tools to help those with mental illness understand that these illnesses are real, common, and treatable, and that it’s okay to seek help.

The training can be tailored to best meet the needs of individual groups, as well as the communities in which the skills learned in the training will be implemented. 

Last month, we hosted a briefing for congressional staff and heard from law enforcement professionals who were trained in Mental Health First Aid.  Their message was clear: This program helps them to better do their job, keep their communities and their fellow officers safe, and help those undergoing a mental health crisis.

To date, 225,000 individuals have been trained in Mental Health First Aid, including more than 10,000 public safety officers.  That is a tremendous reflection of the program’s relevance.  But it’s only a start.  We need to make this training available to thousands more across the country.  That’s why the two of us, who come from different political parties and different parts of the country, are sponsors of the Mental Health First Aid Act (S. 153), which would authorize $20 million in grant funding for Mental Health First Aid training programs across the country.

We urge our colleagues to join our bipartisan cosponsors in both the Senate and the House to support this valuable program.  Mental Health First Aid can go a long way in helping to address this urgent problem in communities throughout this great nation, and it has the potential to help prevent crises and save lives.

Ayotte is New Hampshire's junior senator, serving since 2011. She sits on the Armed Services; the Budget; the Commerce, Science and Transportation; and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees. Begich is Alaska's junior senator, serving since 2009. He sits on the Appropriations; the Commerce, Science and Transportation; the Homeland Seurity and Governmental Affairs; the Indian Affairs; and the Veterans' Affairs committees. Ayotte and Begich are sponsors of the Mental Health First Aid Act (S. 153).