Lawmaker calls for briefing on mental illness danger signs

A leading lawmaker on mental-health issues is calling for a bipartisan debate on how to keep lawmakers and their staff and families safe in the wake of Saturday's deadly shooting in Tucson, Ariz. 

Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Mental Health Caucus, wants the group to hold a briefing focusing on the behaviors and threats that raise red flags.

"Police agencies already do that," Napolitano told The Hill. "I want to make sure some of our employees — those that are interested — are able to at least benefit from some kind of information that almost everybody else in law enforcement knows about."

Napolitano's comments reflect the anxiety that has gripped Capitol Hill since the deadly shooting Saturday that gravely injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and left six people dead. The suspect in the attack, Jared Lee Loughner, was suspended from Pima Community College because school officials were concerned with his erratic behavior.

"My family members and other folks from my area are concerned about safety," Napolitano said. "They're asking: Are you OK? Have you had any similar things happen to you? Well, we always hear things, whether directly or indirectly. You tend to ignore them, but how do we define what we can ignore and what we need to take seriously?"

Napolitano said it's important for lawmakers to tackle mental-health issues facing the community, but the first priority should be dealing with any other possible threats.

"We need to deal with what we're facing right now, and are you going to have a copy-cat out there who has similar intentions?" she said. 

Other lawmakers have raised concerns with state and federal mental-health laws in the wake of Saturday's shooting, as well as with the lack of funding for mental-health services. Liberals have also suggested that gun laws should be tightened to prevent people with mental-health issues from accessing them, even though Loughner was reportedly never diagnosed with such an illness.

"We've frankly allowed our public mental-health system to weaken in this country," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow" show Monday. "We've got to find a way to rebuild that social safety net for people with a mental illness. ... With what we're facing in terms of state budget cuts and in Washington, I think it's especially important to pay attention to that."

The National Alliance on Mental Illness expressed a similar hope in the wake of the shooting.

"Nationwide, the mental health care system is broken," NAMI Executive Director Michael J. Fitzpatrick said in a statement. "Arizona, like other states, has deeply cut mental health services. Arizona has a broad civil commitment law to require treatment if it is needed; however, the law cannot work if an evaluation is never conducted or mental health services are not available."

In a statement issued Tuesday, Public Citizen predicted that the U.S. would continue to lead the developed world in the number of people killed by "inadequately diagnosed or treated people with serious mental illness" until two "predictors" are addressed. They are: the "appalling state of provision of services for the seriously mentally ill" and the "easy availability of guns to almost everyone."

"This deadly combination leads to the seemingly endless number of lives lost in frequent outbreaks of mass murder, making the notion of Homeland Security, directed only at the more traditional kind of terrorism, seem to be a grossly deficient effort," said E. Fuller Torrey and Sidney Wolfe, both of whom are doctors of medicine.

Napolitano said state mental-health cuts were unlikely to be reversed, but that the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., could spark renewed attention to the issue. She said she would reintroduce her Mental Health in Schools Act, which increases funding to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to provide on-site therapists in schools.

"Mental health is not something that is very popular — you don't want to see it, you don't want to hear it, you don't want to talk about it," she said. "It's got a stigma to it. We need to start addressing the stigma."

The Mental Health Caucus was established in 2003. It has 78 members carried over from the last Congress, which had 96. 

Its stated goal is to "discuss awareness and find solutions in a bipartisan manner on improving mental health care and its delivery to every American."

The caucus' priorities include: 

• Reducing negativism and stigma attached to mental-health issues; 

• Helping those in need, particularly the poor and seniors, access mental-health services;

• Improving workforce productivity by helping businesses provide mental-health services for employees; and

• Ensuring that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have access to mental-health services for post-traumatic stress disorder or other related mental-health conditions.

Updated at 7 p.m. with Public Citizen's statement

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