Some are calling it the most ambitious piece of mental health legislation since President John F. Kennedy’s landmark law aimed at shutting down the nation’s notorious “insane asylums” in favor of more humane community-based services — a goal that in two generations was never quite realized.
According to its supporters, the new legislation — quietly making its way through Congress — would take steps toward bringing some of the nation’s mental health laws in line with current science and medical knowledge.
The bill, called the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, would begin to overhaul a mental health system whose services many criticize as being too little too late.
Local government and mental health officials are hopeful the legislation marks a turning point.
“The whole bill is really huge in terms of addressing the gaps of mental health treatment in America and the crisis that we are facing due to it,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a longtime advocate and supporter of mental health services.
Zane, who says the lack of one-on-one therapy and poor monitoring of psychotropic medications led to the death by suicide of her husband in 2011, argues that mental illness should be treated with the same level of care as health conditions such as heart disease or cancer.
Health care providers are too focused on the “almighty dollar. They make money on cardiac and cancer treatment but not on mental illness … mental health care is a civil rights issue,” she said.
The legislation, authored by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., a practicing psychologist, is a byproduct of a Congressional inquiry into recent mass shootings, such as the 2012 massacre that left 20 elementary school children and six adults dead in Newtown, Connecticut. Those inquiries focused on the impact of untreated severe mental illness, recognizing that the vast majority of Americans who suffer from conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are nonviolent.
But a series of public forums and investigative hearings leading up to the drafting of Murphy’s bill highlighted serious gaps across the entire spectrum of mental health care. In fact, of the estimated 11.4 million American adults who suffer from severe mental illness, 40 percent are not receiving any treatment, according to a House subcommittee investigation into federal mental health programs.
One of the key elements in the legislation is its creation of a high-ranking assistant secretary post that would oversee federal policies addressing mental health and substance-use disorders.
“This is probably one of the biggest pieces of mental health legislation since President Kennedy,” said John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a Virginia-based national nonprofit that works to eliminate barriers to treatment for people with severe mental illness.
“For no other illness would we have laws and regulations based on our understanding from the ’60s,” Snook said. “In every other medical illness, the practice, doctors’ requirements and laws for treatment have advanced.”
Among other steps, the legislation would:
Authorize funding for assisted outpatient treatment — court-ordered treatment for people with severe mental illness who do not recognize their condition.
Create a new grant program for suicide prevention.
Expand Medicaid benefits for children who use inpatient psychiatric care.