A fractured, dysfunctional federal response to mental illness needs an overhaul. Congress can actually do it this year.
THE U.S. federal government spends about $5.7 billion annually to help people with serious mental illness, according to a recent investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
What does all that money buy? It pays for 112 distinct programs spread across eight federal agencies. But more than half of the programs specially targeting serious mental illness don’t even evaluate their effectiveness, according to the GAO.
In that cacophony of bureaucratic dysfunction, an estimated 40 percent of people with serious mental illness don’t even get care. And when many do ultimately get some level of treatment, it is provided in prison.
Congress can change that — and change it this year. There is growing momentum behind a landmark mental-health-reform bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., the only practicing psychologist in Congress. Murphy has the support of a key committee chairman, and 118 co-sponsors on his bill.
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Murphy notes that the nation’s annual deaths to suicide (about 41,000) and drug overdose (about 44,000) equal all combat deaths in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
“You have to ask, what are we doing wrong here?” Murphy said.
These are not new facts. Congress has failed to respond to the need for mental-health reform, again and again, as it became tied to gun-control proposals.
The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act separates the two and refocuses fractured federal resources on treating serious mental illness. It would end an antiquated Medicaid rule that banned funding for psychiatric hospitals larger than 16 beds. It gives families more tools to be involved in the care of a suffering loved one. It encourages telemedicine to improve psychiatric care in rural areas, where psychiatrists are scarce, and pays for mental-health training for police officers.
Among Washington’s delegation, only Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, has signed on. Seattle Democrat Jim McDermott, a psychiatrist, said this week he supports it — describing it as the biggest potential mental-health reform in decades — but hasn’t signed on yet because he wants to make sure he knows what’s going to be in the final product.
Murphy said the only way this complex, and likely expensive, piece of legislation will pass Congress is with a push from families familiar with the dysfunction of the current system.
Members of Congress don’t have public email addresses, but do have online contact forms found at 1.usa.gov/1e8pAws. Give this proposal a push.