Mental health care key to ending mass shootings

As a survivor of the mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., two-and-a-half years ago, I am determined that no one else should have to endure such grief and loss.

So this week, as we observe the six-month anniversary of the senseless and tragic murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I am determined to lead a bipartisan effort to get more done in Washington.


Since I came to Congress one year ago, I have worked to find common ground and solutions for Southern Arizona and for the good of our country.

In the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., many of my colleagues in Congress knew that we must work together to make sure such a tragedy was never allowed to happen again. 

While there is no single answer to preventing mass shootings, we know that untreated or undiagnosed serious mental illness has been a factor in a number of the recent tragedies. We must do more to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. And we must invest in the early identification of mental illness and in treatment programs.

This issue was among the topics discussed recently at the White House mental health summit, which I attended.

The event, hosted by the president, brought together mental health experts, faith leaders, advocates, service providers and state and local elected officials. The goal was to connect a broad range of interested parties and build national support for improvements in mental health services.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, states have cut $1.8 billion from their mental health budgets during the economic recession. Sixty percent of people living with a mental illness are not receiving the care that they need. We must do better.

It is important to note that more than 95 percent of individuals living with a mental illness are not violent. They are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. 

The young man who killed six people and wounded 13 in Tucson on Jan. 8, 2011, had displayed symptoms of mental illness for at least two years prior to the shooting — and yet he never received a diagnosis or treatment.

We are left to ask, “Could this tragedy have been prevented if he had been provided mental health services?” I believe this and other such mass shootings could have been averted if the public were more aware of the indications of mental illness and how to get help.

It is clear that we must expand mental health awareness of, and treatment services for, 100 percent of individuals living with mental illness. That is why I introduced the Mental Health First Aid Act earlier this year with strong bipartisan support.

This legislation would provide training to help first responders, educators, students, parents and the general public identify and respond to signs of mental illness.

This is one bipartisan step we can take to increase mental health awareness, but there is still much more we can do to improve mental health care in our country.

We must invest in mental health professionals and resources in our schools and throughout our communities, ensure timely and accessible services to our returning war veterans, and guarantee that insurance plans provide coverage for mental health care alongside physical health care.

This is not a partisan issue, and it should be one that unites all of us in Congress. I call on my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to stand with me in support of the expansion of mental health services.

Americans are calling on us to get something done. This is an area in which we can make progress if we do it together. The country is watching and anxiously awaiting our response.

Barber entered the House of Representatives in June 2012, representing Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District and serving on the Armed Services, Homeland Security and Small Business committees. He was wounded in the Tucson shooting in January 2011 that also seriously injured his predecessor, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).