July 24, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Mental-Health Interest Is Personal for Many Lawmakers

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Barber’s approach to the mental-health issue in Congress has been shaped by his career and his experience as a victim of the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz.

Barber introduced legislation (HR 274) in January designed to expand access to training to help teachers, students, law enforcement, nurses and other groups recognize the symptoms of mental illness and provide early referrals to services. While 1,400 people in his district have already gone through training, Barber said he wanted to make it available to the rest of the country, helping increase public awareness and reduce stigma.

He and his family also founded the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding while Barber was recovering in the ICU, he noted, with goals of decreasing the stigma of mental illness and combating bullying in schools.

In the Senate, one of the leaders on mental-health issues is Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, whose father began exhibiting behavior now called bipolar disorder when she was in middle school. Stabenow said he went undiagnosed for 10 years, going in and out of hospitals without receiving the help he needed. But once the illness was discovered and a drug was developed, her father was able to monitor his medications like people do for other illnesses and, with therapy, be healthy and successful, she said in an interview.

Stabenow has introduced a bill (S 264) aimed at increasing access to community mental-health services and improving quality by setting criteria for federally qualified community behavioral health centers and allowing them to bill Medicaid. An advocate for mental health and substance abuse provisions in the 2010 health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152), she said her measure fills the gap in coverage among those in the community without access to insurance.

Stabenow has also praised the movie “Silver Linings Playbook” for putting a human face on the struggles of a family dealing with bipolar disorder, and she has appeared at news conferences with the movie’s director and lead actor. She said she identifies with the scenes in which the main character wakes up his parents and talks to them about his ideas, noting that her own father — while never violent — would wake up her mother and talk all night.

“That movie, I think for many of us, was something that was a picture of our lives with a loved one. And it also was very hopeful because when he began to take his medicine, when he had the support he needed, things became very hopeful for him,” she said. “That’s my story — there is hope, and my dad got the help he needed and was able to live a productive life with his family.”

Another Senate voice on mental-health care, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, has introduced two pieces of mental-health legislation in the new Congress: one (S 162) focused on the criminal justice system and another (S 195) designed to increase access to mental-health services in schools. Part of the connection he feels to mental-health issues stems from his wife’s struggle with alcohol dependency and her recovery, which she spoke about in an ad released during his campaign.

“During that period, I learned a lot about not just alcoholism but about recovery and about myself,” Franken said in an interview. “It was a very powerful experience.”

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