For Rep. Ron Barber, the discussion about gun violence and mental health that has followed December’s elementary school shooting has a deeply personal element: The Arizona Democrat was among the injured after a mentally unstable gunman opened fire on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in 2011.
But his interest in mental health dates back to long before the Tucson, Ariz., shooting, stemming from his time as a Head Start director and 32 years with the Division of Developmental Disabilities in the Arizona Department of Economic Security. Although the division’s primary focus is on people with disabilities, he noted, about 35 percent to 40 percent of the people served also have a mental-health diagnosis.
Barber said his involvement boils down to an enduring interest in civil rights and a realization that, in some ways, the issue of disabilities was “the last frontier of the civil rights movement.”
“It really is about making sure that people are fully included in a community, not isolated, segregated, in an institution, but really have an opportunity to have complete lives, and that’s kind of been my life’s work,” he said in an interview.
Barber is one of many lawmakers who has a strong connection to the issue, either personally, because of a career before Congress, or both, and has made mental health a priority. A number of those members have introduced legislation focused on mental health in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting, hoping to parlay their knowledge and the energy of the moment into change.
In Barber’s case, his approach to the issue in Congress has been shaped by his career and his experience as a victim of the 2011 shooting. As Giffords’ district director, he was standing beside her when the shooter opened fire, causing the brain injury that led to Giffords’ resignation a year later and his ascent to her seat.
“When I was well enough to read the accounts of the shooting and to learn more about the shooter, what was apparent — and this has been true in other cases, unfortunately — was that he was displaying a lot of symptoms of mental illness long before he shot us,” Barber said. “Yet no one did anything to get him treatment, to get him a diagnosis ... that was a problem that I felt we really should address.”
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.”
Franken also noted that he had a late comedy partner who was an alcohol and drug user, which was “kind of a source of our splitting up” and that he had friends with addiction problems during his time on “Saturday Night Live.”
Beyond those experiences, he studied behavioral sciences in college and holds the Senate seat of the late Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone, who was a leader on mental health.
Other lawmakers focused on mental-health care can also trace their involvement to connections made before their service in Congress.
Rep. Grace F. Napolitano, D-Calif., who introduced the House version of Franken’s school-centered bill (HR 628), said her interest dates back to the 1980s, when she served on the city council, and to her later work in the state legislature. Napolitano co-chairs the Congressional Mental Health Caucus with Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy, who worked as a psychologist before entering Congress and is now chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. That panel is looking into mental-health issues in the wake of the Newtown shooting.
For Alaska Democrat Mark Begich, the sponsor of the Senate version (S 153) of Barber’s training measure, much of his interest in mental health comes from his work as mayor of Anchorage. In an interview, he referenced a crisis-intervention training program provided through the municipal police department to help de-escalate situations in which mental illness is a factor.
The broad reach of mental-health issues probably will continue to bring voices to the discussion as Congress maintains a focus in that area. Stabenow said she has “yet to be in a conversation with someone and not have them tell me that a member of their family or a friend or someone that they know at work” is affected.
“I’m finding that this is something that we may not talk a lot about, but every family is impacted not only by physical illnesses, but mental illnesses as well,” she said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.