Advocates for mental health have momentum after Conn. massacre

The mental-health community has begun a major lobbying effort for federal action in response to last Friday’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn. 

Major advocacy groups are already meeting with Capitol Hill offices and formulating an agenda that they say has forward momentum as a result of the new public dialogue on mental illness.

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“The field as a whole has agreed. There is a lot of interest among other national organizations in getting something done,” said Rebecca Farley with the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. 

Advocates say the most important objective is strengthening community-based mental health services. They are also focused on early diagnosis and treatment of ill children, and efforts to erase the stigma that surrounds mental health problems.

The advocates already have a number of bills to rally behind.

The Excellence in Mental Health Act, from Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), would create federal standards and oversight for community mental health providers. 

Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) has sponsored legislation to support new mental health services in schools.

And Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) have a bill to encourage first-aid-style training on mental health in colleges. 

Outside of Capitol Hill, advocates are preparing their own efforts. Wayne Lindstrom, president and chief executive of Mental Health America, said a coalition of mental-health groups would soon be sending a proposal to the White House and congressional leaders.

That letter will ask lawmakers to double the country’s capacity to provide mental-health services.

“It’s probably going to be a hard one to bite off and chew, but we feel a strong need to put it on the table,” Lindstrom said.

Polls taken since last Friday’s massacre have found that the public supports a renewed emphasis on mental health treatment. 

A survey released by Gallup on Wednesday found that 84 percent feel that increasing government spending on mental health would be either “very” or “somewhat” effective in preventing mass shootings. And Rasmussen found that a plurality, 48 percent, endorsed a renewed focus on mental health issues in response to the crisis. 

The Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza, was the latest in a recent series of disturbed young men to engage in mass shootings. His mother was reportedly trying to institutionalize him before he murdered her and 25 other people last week.

President Obama named mental illness as a priority on Wednesday as he announced the creation of a task force on gun violence led by Vice President Biden.

“We’re going to need to make access to mental healthcare at least as easy as access to a gun,” Obama said.

Advocates told The Hill that they plan to emphasize the role of Medicaid in paying for mental-health services and urge Congress not to cut the program in an agreement to avoid the “fiscal cliff.” 

Specifically, Mental Health America and its counterparts want the Obama administration to expand access to a Medicaid program that provides mental-health screenings for children younger than 5.

“It’s when kids get basically hard-wired,” Lindstrom said.

He said mental health services have been cut by some $4 billion recently, when Medicaid reductions are included.

“We’re in a much weaker position today to attempt to meet service demands,” Lindstrom said.

Children do better when they’re treated in familiar settings — their home or school — than when they’re sent away to an inpatient facility, he said. And mental health needs to be a priority beginning at a young age.

“When we talk about access, we’re talking about having good, comprehensive assessments available as early as possible,” Lindstrom said.

The coalition will also press Congress to take up Napolitano’s legislation.

“If Congress is really serious about doing something, and doing something immediately, it should begin scheduling hearings and moving forward,” he said.

Mental Health America and other organizations might also wade into the gun-control debate — an area they have avoided in the past. Lindstrom said policies like the assault-weapons ban might be necessary in conjunction with greater access to screening and treatment.

“Limiting automatic weapons and magazine capacity is something our field historically has not been out front on, but I think given the immensity of this tragedy … maybe this is something that seems to be a safeguard that could have a role in reducing the likelihood” of another attack, he said.

He also emphasized full implementation of the Mental Health Parity law, as well as President Obama’s signature healthcare law, which he said makes needed investments in shifting mental health toward the same prevention-focused model as physical care.

“This is first time mental health has an opportunity to be an equal at the table,” he said.

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Napolitano, who leads the Congressional Mental Health Caucus, said the time is ripe to move forward, though she blamed Republicans for opposing targeted spending.

“My colleagues are not willing to put forth anything that has an earmark,” she said, “and this is an earmark thing.” 

Napolitano also lamented that no Republicans have signed on to her bill, and that the Mental Health Caucus she leads has only nine GOP members, compared to 74 Democrats.

“They don’t consider it a priority,” she said. “I hope things will be different now that the president is getting in on the act.” 

Kate Mattias of the Connecticut chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said she hopes lawmakers can adjust their thinking to integrate mental health into larger healthcare discussions. 

“Whenever there is a conversation about health, mental health needs to be part of that conversation,” she said. 

“It’s thought of differently, but we need to talk about it broadly, just like we talk about lowering diabetes or cardiovascular issues.”