Mental illness is just that: an illness. Millions of Americans suffer from diagnosable mental disorders in America. But too often, we neglect or miss the warning signs of an individual suffering from a mental disorder or mental health crisis, and we fail to help them in their time of need. As a nation, we must learn how best to care for the mentally ill in the hope that we may help to prevent tragedies.

Unfortunately, many communities do not have adequate mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment services and facilities. In Missouri, the Mental Health First Aid program that is facilitated by the state’s Institute of Mental Health focuses on helping the public identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders.

State programs like this are a good step in the right direction, but we must also have a comprehensive conversation about the way Washington funds federal programs that treat mental illness, as well as a way to streamline information sharing when someone is identified as dangerously unstable.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is responsible for providing federal funding to support these services. This agency has not undergone a comprehensive reauthorization since 2000 - a problem that I believe Congress should address. Federal focus – and the dollars that follow – must facilitate proactive and cohesive collaboration across other agencies that work with the mentally ill and their caregivers.

In September 2012, I signed a letter with the rest of the Missouri delegation in support of Missouri’s Mental Health First Aid Awareness Week to encourage individuals to learn the basic skills needed to identify potential mental health concerns. Just as we encourage people to receive training in first aid for medical emergencies, we should ensure members of our community also learn mental health first aid. And our doctors and clinical practices should be equipped with the tools and resources needed to care for children and adults who need mental health treatment.

Like all Americans, I worry about our kids’ safety, and I’m remembering the families who lost their loved ones in Newtown. There are no easy answers in the aftermath of this kind of horrendous loss. Together, we must work to prevent these acts of violence in a thoughtful and comprehensive way.

Blunt is a Republican U.S. Senator from Missouri. This originally appeared in the Kansas City Star on December 20.