Delivering treatment before tragedy

Four years ago today, around 9:30 a.m. in Newport, Conn., the lives of 27 families changed forever. Sometime afterward, a few of those families visited my office in Washington, D.C. They left pictures of their young children, and their spouses, whose lives were taken that winter day at Sandy Hook elementary – and I made them a promise: I would work to ensure that we fix our broken mental health system and deliver treatment before tragedy.

More than 11 million Americans struggle with severe schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression. Too many go without treatment while the current broken mental health system spends billions in a patchwork of antiquated programs and ineffective policies spread out across numerous agencies.

{mosads}Over a year of hearings and testimonies revealed shocking and dismal statistics: 112 federal programs and $130 billion poured into a broken system that has been ineffective and unable to respond before tragedies occur.

Ever-increasing rates of homelessness, suicide, and incarceration of the mentally ill reflect how the criminal justice system has overtaken the mental health system. America’s largest mental “hospitals” are in fact the LA County, Cook County, and Rikers Island jails; in 2015, there were over 350,000 deaths related to mental illness, and an average rate of 959 lives taken each day; and our nation lacks enough trained professionals to accommodate over 10 million Americans who suffer from serious mental illness.

With the problems identified, we went to work and crafted a bipartisan solution, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. Our bill refocuses the wasteful, woefully misdirected federal mental-health bureaucracy to respond to serious mental illness. 

We’ve created an Assistant Secretary of Mental Health and Substance Use to coordinate the federal programs and maximize efficiencies while also integrating mental health with physical healthcare. We focus resources on suicide prevention, expand the mental health workforce by bringing in more trained professionals, drive evidence-based care, advance compassionate communication between doctors and families with loved ones who suffer from serious mental illness, and most importantly, truly scrutinize the outcomes so that we continue to learn what will improve our mental health system, and build upon the foundation we’ve worked to secure with this bill.

I’m also proud to say that this bill reflects for the first time in history that Congress is taking action to help those with an eating disorder get access to medical care.

The Helping Families legislation fundamentally changes the way that the government addresses mental health in our nation and puts a focus on medical treatment for brain disorders.

Two weeks ago, as a part of the 21st Century Cures Act, the U.S. House of Representatives passed it 392-26. Last week, the Senate agreed to the reforms by a final vote of 94-5. Finally, yesterday, I watched as the President signed the most comprehensive mental health legislation in half a century into law.

Every day, for four years, I saw the faces of the victims of Sandy Hook and was reminded of my promise to their families and the millions of others like them across our great nation. I never gave up on that promise. I am so grateful for the support I’ve received along this incredibly long and uphill journey. As we move to a new year, with a new administration and a new Congress, we look to a future of promise for real treatment for so many families who for too long have suffered in silence. For them, help is surely on the way. And where there is help, there is hope.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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