Let’s do our best for mental health

The human brain is an extraordinary thing. When functioning at its highest levels, the brain can produce profound thoughts, innovate scientific breakthroughs that change the course of history and imagine breathtaking forms of art.

Unfortunately, like any other human organ, the brain is not infallible. When the brain malfunctions it can produce unfounded anxiety, bewildering confusion and, at its worse, trigger unprovoked violence.

We owe it those who suffer from mental illness, their families and the communities in which they live to provide mentally ill Americans with the opportunity to receive effective treatment for their condition. That is why I have joined an effort in Congress, led by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), to significantly reform our federal mental health policies by becoming a cosponsor of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.

This bipartisan legislation is the product of a yearlong congressional investigation that thoroughly examined how the federal government spends $125 billion each year on mental health programs across numerous agencies and departments. Investigators found that the federal agencies in charge of mental health programs all too often fail to use the best available medical treatments and practices, rarely coordinate their actions and hardly engage in data collection to track treatment outcomes.

Any medical treatment is only as good as the science behind it. Incredibly, some agencies responsible for mental health programs, like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), lack a strong science-based foundation. As the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tasked with leading public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation, it is alarming that out of the more than 500 employees at SAMHSA, only two are actual medical professionals.

The failings of our mental health programs and policies have translated to a frustrating reality where mass tragedies become commonplace and the mentally ill wind up in the criminal justice system rather than our healthcare system. According to federal statistics, more than half of U.S. prison inmates and at least half of all people fatally shot by law enforcement in our country each year have some sort of mental illness.

Thankfully for taxpayers, the solution is not to throw more money at the problem. The bipartisan Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act is an overdue step to fix our mental health system by modernizing federal programs to provide coordinated, science-based mental health treatment.

Instead of heavily relying on institutionalization, our legislation would provide an important substitute for long-term inpatient care by encouraging court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment (AOT). How does AOT work? It is generally an alternative treatment in which a judge orders a qualifying person with symptoms of severe untreated mental illness to abide by an appropriate mental health treatment plan while still living in the community rather than an institution. Medication and other types of mental health treatment are often part of the AOT as well.

Communities that have utilized AOT have found promising results. In New York, mental health treatment costs dropped by 43 percent in the first year after AOT was initiated and the odds of arrest for those who were participating in AOT were nearly two-thirds lower than for those who weren’t.

The bill also stresses the need to enhance the science behind mental health treatment by establishing a high-ranking, dedicated position within the Department of Health and Human Services to apply and optimize evidence-based models of care to all relevant federal programs. We also authorize the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which will be overseen by the National Institutes of Health and could revolutionize our understanding of the human brain and potentially lead to great advances in how we care for the mentally ill.

Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement policies have resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of psychiatric beds in the U.S. Fifty years ago we had more than 500,000 inpatient psychiatric beds nationwide; today, there are less than 50,000. By making specific, focused exceptions, our bill will increase access to care facilities for the most serious patients with a mental illness.

On top of fixing our mental health programs, we must also make sure we have the policies in place to care for those with an illness. As we’ve seen, physicians and colleges withhold information about serious changes in mental health conditions of young adults from their parents and loved ones because of complex federal privacy rules and regulations. Our bill makes responsible modifications to those rules to ensure that parents and physicians can work together in creating the best care plan possible for their families.

Our nation’s mental health system hasn’t seen significant reform since former President John F. Kennedy established community mental health centers 51 years ago. I believe the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act takes the essential steps in fixing our disjointed and ineffective federal policies, and in turn makes a huge stride in improving the level of treatment for mental illness.

Should this legislation be passed into law, there is no doubt that the collective health of our entire country will find itself in a better place.
Calvert has represented southern California congressional districts since 1993. He sits on the Appropriations and Budget committees.