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Congress finally focuses on mental health

U.S. Capitol dome at sunrise over Washington, D.C.,

U.S. Capitol dome at sunrise over Washington, D.C., on Sept. 25, 2013. Credit: Getty Images

For those of us who are horrified by the inaction over mental health care -- especially since the killings of 20 schoolchildren by a seriously disturbed man in Newtown, Connecticut -- good news arrived this week.

Legislation that would overhaul how our country handles serious mental illness is getting traction after languishing for nearly two years. The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act is the result of a campaign by Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pittsburgh-area Republican and child psychologist, to respond to the December 2012 Sandy Hook school tragedy.

Murphy has mustered 149 co-sponsors, including 40 Democrats, but he has labored to gain support from House leaders to advance the measure. However, a bill in the Senate -- which seems intended to moderate some of Murphy's unpopular prescriptions -- is stirring Congress to life.

In August, Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) introduced a companion to the House bill. The senators hope to have their legislation considered in committee by the end of the year.

Another element propelling Congress is what Pennsylvania's Murphy calls the bloody summer of 2015, when we witnessed the on-air killings of a TV news team in Virginia in August, and the shooting deaths of nine community college students in Roseburg, Oregon, earlier this month.

The House and Senate bills differ on a handful of issues that reflect the deep divide in the mental health community over patients' rights. The former favors involuntary court-ordered treatment, which has been pioneered in New York as Kendra's Law. As befits Murphy's psychologist background, it's a recommendation that sits well with professionals and family members -- those on the outside looking in.

As the sister of a man who has struggled for decades with paranoid schizophrenia -- including hospitalizations, transitional housing, homelessness and incarceration -- I favor stronger powers for families. We are the first line of defense when someone we know and love needs help.

But on the other side are consumer and peer advocates -- among them, people who have recovered from a breakdown and are living successfully with mental illness. They lean toward protecting civil rights: A person with mental illness should be able to self-determine and to keep medical information private. Court orders "criminalize" mental illness, layering one stigma on top of another, says Michael Stoltz, chief executive of the Association for Mental Health and Wellness in Ronkonkoma, which provides psychiatric rehabilitation services.

Stoltz believes that when the discussion about mental health arises after a mass murder, we've already warped the dialogue from one of health care to one of public safety. He thinks we should identify the people we know are in the worst shape when they show up in emergency rooms and "wrap services around them" -- in other words, create plans of individualized care that include family and caseworkers.

"We can change the course of things if we catch them early enough," he says.

I don't disagree. But I also think we're at a place where too many mentally ill people are on the street or in jails. I've read that the three biggest "hospitals" in the mental health system are jails in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. I know my brother went off his medication repeatedly, in denial that he had a mental illness. Eventually, he, too, landed in jail after committing a crime.

It should not be the case that someone has to fail -- and resort to violence -- before he or she receives help. We can argue over how that occurs, but our record to date is abysmal.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.


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