The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act: a good start

Legislators July 6 passed the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 2646) by an overwhelming 422-2.

The bill – originally introduced three years ago by Reps. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) in the aftermath of the 2012 Newtown tragedy reflected the frustration of many who know we can and should do better when it comes to people with serious mental illnesses. Families left without support to care for loved ones, law enforcement officers who too often are caretakers of last resort, medical professionals who have been marginalized, and the public frightened by highly publicized tragedies – all wanted change. 

{mosads}Tim Murphy put words to those frustrations and stimulated a long simmering and much needed conversation. His bill underwent substantial revisions as differing points of view weighed in and costs became an issue. Less than some hoped, nevertheless the bill contains important provisions, including codification of Medicaid coverage for inpatient mental health care, HIPAA education programs, reports and transparency on parity, and grant programs. 

The bill is important progress.  But generations of neglect and inequity keep services out of the reach of those desperately in need of care.

Twenty-six percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults —have a diagnosable mental illness in a given year. Death rates from alcohol and opiate abuse are skyrocketing and tearing apart families and entire communities. There has been a steady growth in suicide rates each year since 1999, increasing by 25% in the last 15 years. Deaths by suicide are rising among adolescents and youth… among middle aged Americans… and among older adults.

Addressing these public health crises – crises far more common and just as deadly as AIDS, Ebola and the Zika virus – requires going beyond codifying and granting. We have a crisis that requires adding service capacity, the capacity created by The Excellence in Mental Health Act, and ensuring more of us can identify when someone needs and know how to help them, through the Mental Health First Aid Act.

Provisions based on the Excellence in Mental Health Act, sponsored by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), and Reps. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), are key ingredients that need to be added to The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.

The Excellence Act offers what everyone – families, law enforcement, policy makers – wants: expanded access; evidence-based mental health and addictions services delivered by skilled staff; peer and family support; 24-hour crisis care; integration of physical and behavioral health care; a community continuum that prevents re-admissions, trauma, and disruptions to home, school and work.  And through outcome monitoring, clinics held accountable for measuring patients’ progress and adjusting course when treatments aren’t working as hoped.

Secondly, legislators need to include provisions based on the Mental Health First Aid Act, sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), and Matsui and Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.). The Act trains emergency services workers, police officers, primary care professionals, educators, students and others to recognize symptoms of mental illnesses and addictions and de-escalate crisis situations. More than 650,000 Americans have been trained to help someone developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis and demand continues to grow. The training has started a movement that is changing America’s culture.

This Congress has made progress turning talk into action. Now it’s time to confront the primary barrier to care – insufficient treatment capacity – and Congress can do that by including The Excellence in Mental Health Act and the Mental Health First Aid Act as the Senate considers the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. 

Linda Rosenberg is president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health.


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