Delivering action on mental health

Getty Images

America is in the midst of a national mental health crisis. Over 40 million Americans have a mental illness. Nearly 10 million have a serious psychiatric disorder such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. Millions of people who experience mental illness go without care, and many of them end up in prison or on the streets — or dead. Each year, 41,000 Americans die from suicide and 44,000 from drug overdoses, a number equal to all U.S. combat deaths in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Women are particularly impacted by mental illness because they make up two-thirds of all caregivers.

{mosads}For many years, because of the stigma attached to mental illness, it had been largely absent from the American political discussion. The government has offered some help for the mentally ill, yet not enough and not effectively. The leading government entity dealing with mental illness is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency (SAMHSA), a dysfunctional organization that until recently employed only a single psychiatrist and spends much of its budget on non-acute conditions like stress.

Current laws effectively limit the number of psychiatric beds hospitals can provide. Privacy rules make it difficult for the mentally ill to receive treatment, or for their families to get information about their conditions or share that information with treating physicians. I spoke with a woman last year whose son had schizophrenia and refused to take his medications — but the law made her powerless to have her child receive the care he needed. He ended up dying by suicide.

Over the last several years, there has been a real transformation in the way that many Americans speak about mental illness. There has been a movement, through Twitter campaigns such as #imnotashamed and #sicknotweak, to remove the stigma attached to mental illness and encourage people to see it as a physiological condition rather than a personal failing.

Addressing the mental health crisis in our nation was a key component of the Women2Women Policy Agenda put forward by Main Street Advocacy earlier this year, following several of our Women2Women national conversations. With the help of the members from the Republican Main Street Partnership and the other side of the aisle, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act was introduced by Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican who’s the only licensed psychologist currently serving in Congress, and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat who’s a psychiatric nurse. The bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by 191 members of the House of Representatives, is scheduled for markup on June 15.

The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act will reform our government’s ineffective efforts to help the mentally ill in several important ways. It provides incentives for funding assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) for patients with a long history of posing a danger to themselves or others. This would allow judges to request that patients undergo treatment while they live in the community, instead of in a hospital or prison. AOT has been proven to reduce suicide, imprisonment, substance abuse and homelessness as well as crime by and against the mentally ill.

The bill would amend existing federal privacy laws so that in cases of serious mental illness, consulting doctors would be able to communicate with the patient’s parent or caregiver. The bill also restates existing privacy laws so providers are able to communicate with caregivers when individuals are in acute psychosis and unable to provide essential information themselves.

Under the terms of the bill, Medicaid would no longer deny reimbursement to hospitals with more than 16 psychiatric beds. That would ease the nationwide shortage of psychiatric beds that currently leaves so many patients in crisis with nowhere to go.

On June 14 at 11 a.m., the Republican Main Street Partnership — the organization that I manage — will hold a bipartisan press conference in support of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act in front of the House of Representatives at the House Triangle. Drawing public support for this legislation will help overcome the inertia and indifference that so far has stalled the bill’s passage through Congress.

Main Street has also initiated an online public petition to endorse the bill. It has generated not only support, but dozens of heartrending stories about the tragic and often lethal shortcomings of the government’s current approach to mental illness. Each story I read reinforces my conviction that this issue is much too important to fall victim to the usual partisan squabbling in Washington. Congress must take action now to pass the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act and relieve the sufferings of millions of Americans.

Chamberlain serves as president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, an organization started in 1998 that represents 72 members of Congress advancing the goals of the governing wing of the Republican Party.

Tags Eddie Bernice Johnson Mental health mental illness SAMHSA Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency Tim Murphy Women2Women

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video