Lawmakers in both chambers are calling for Congress to start a conversation about mental health issues in the wake of last week’s deadly shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, with one goal of ensuring adequate funding for services for those who need treatment.
Although much of the discussion since last week’s shooting has focused on gun policy, several members are also emphasizing the role mental illness has played in many national tragedies. Congress has taken little action on the issue this year, and mental health leaders are hopeful that events in Newtown, Conn., could spur lawmakers to move forward.
“What I think is absolutely essential is Congress has to have an honest dialogue to look at the issues of mental illness,” said Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy, a child psychologist and co-chairman of the Congressional Mental Health Caucus. “We need to put a full-scale effort into reviewing this and understanding it better.”
Beyond a broader policy push, the shooting in Connecticut could also make it more difficult for Congress to allow spending reductions for mental health services as part of the fiscal cliff, deficit reduction efforts or the appropriations process next year.
Murphy said he would work to prevent cuts as the end-of-the-year fiscal negotiations continue, and his mental health caucus co-chairwoman, Grace F. Napolitano, echoed that sentiment in a statement released Dec. 14, the day of the Connecticut shooting.
“We must all work together to secure and protect the federal funding needed to carry out mental health services and programs for all Americans,” the California Democrat said. “We must ensure that mental health support is made available for all children, their families, first responders, and the community of Newtown to help deal with this tragic event.”
Last year, Napolitano was the lead author of a letter urging House Republican and Democratic leadership to reject an appropriations bill (HR 3070) that included cuts to mental health and addiction services. She has also introduced legislation (HR 751) across multiple Congresses that was designed to increase access to mental health services in schools to avert harmful outcomes.
Murphy said he wants to review what services are available in schools, as well as societal attitudes and what information is out there in general so Congress can understand where the country currently stands. But he cautioned his colleagues against thinking that there is a simple fix to the issue.
“I’m just afraid that someone will think that they just pass one bill or deal with one law and this is going to go away. Because it’s not,” he said.
Across the Capitol, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin also pressed Monday for a renewed focus on mental health services “with an emphasis on prevention and early intervention.”
“In the coming days, I will take a closer look at how the federal government can ensure that people and communities who need help for mental health conditions have timely access to the services they require and that those suffering after this tragedy also have the resources they need to heal,” the Iowa Democrat said in a statement.
Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, chairwoman of the HELP Subcommittee on Children and Families, called for a two-step approach that addresses “military-style weapons” and mental health services available for young people.
“All of the recent attacks, whether it was in Aurora or this terrible tragedy in Connecticut, they’ve happened because young men fell between the cracks,” Mikulski said in Baltimore on Monday, according to a transcript from her office. “We have to know that mental health illness does exist in our communities; often silent, often invisible; borne only by those who suffer from it and the families who cope with it. We need to take this tragedy and turn it into a national opportunity to end violence.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also urged a renewed attention to the issue. “Medicaid is the largest payer of mental health services in the U.S.,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, as both state and federal budget cuts have mounted nationwide, both inpatient and community services for children and adults living with serious mental illness have been downsized or eliminated. We must fix that.
“Despite the federal mental health parity law passed in 2008, which is in place to end insurance company discrimination against those seeking treatment for mental health, there is an incredible shortage of mental health providers across the country — including West Virginia,” he added. “This is yet another area where action is necessary.”