This Bipartisan Mental Health Bill Could Help Prevent Mass Shootings

Over the course of 334 days in 2015, the Washington Post reports, there have been 351 “mass shootings.” This, of course, coming on the heels of the horrible crime in Colorado Springs on Friday, where a deranged, cold-blooded killer murdered three people and left nine others injured.

In 2013 — the last year for which data are available — 41,149 Americans died by suicide.            

Mental illness is at the core of much of this bloodshed.

The good news: Congress is taking a look at reforming our country’s mental health care system that has not been dramatically overhauled in nearly a century.

The bad news: politics is getting in the way.

Among the boldest proposals to come out of this Congress is HR 2646, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.). The bill would eliminate the $3.7 billion Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA), which is assigned the rather expansive task of “reducing the impact of mental illness in America… and target mental health services to the people most in need.”

SAMHSA is a waste. The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently found that the agency has it found that SAMHSA “has shown little leadership in coordinating federal efforts on behalf of those with serious mental illness.”

Rep. Tim Murphy, R-PA., center, flanked by Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., right, and Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, to introduce a legislative package of major mental health reforms. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Murphy, a former psychologist, has been one of the leading voices in Congress on mental health care reform. | Photo: AP

What’s more, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Sally Satel discovered, “only a few of the 30 federal programs specifically targeted at individuals with a severe mental illness were even under SAMHSA’s administrative umbrella.”

In layman’s terms, bureaucracy is preventing people in most urgent need of medical attention from getting help. To address this, Murphy’s bill would replace SAMHSA with an assistant secretary of mental health in order to streamline the process, but also to root out programs and treatments that simply don’t work.

The bill also would place a greater emphasis on outpatient treatment, while dealing with how sensitive medical information is shared. This piece is particularly important because myriad privacy laws keep many families in the dark about what sort of treatment — which prescription drugs, basically — their mentally ill loved ones receive.

Surprisingly, SAMHSA is not entirely shunning all of this attention. Phil Walls, an agency spokesman, told Opportunity Lives that congressional attention is welcome.

“The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act is one of several bills that seek to address access to treatment; increase the capacity of the behavioral health workforce; train everyday citizens on how to respond to the signs of mental illness and substance use; and reduce suicide and suicide attempts,” Walls explained in an email.               

Although HR 2646 would not solve all — or even most — of the challenges involved with diagnosing and treating the mentally ill, it is a sensible step toward maximizing effectiveness while reducing duplication of programs and layers of bureaucracy.

It’s too bad that some politicians are prepared to kill progress on this bill to score cheap political points.

It’s too bad that some politicians are prepared to kill progress on this bill to score cheap political points

As with previous mass murders, some are convinced that more gun restrictions are the only proper prescription. In fact, immediately following the Colorado Springs killings, President Barack Obama said: “If we truly care about this — if we’re going to offer up our thoughts and prayers again, for God knows how many times, with a truly clean conscience — then we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them… Enough is enough!”

To Democrats listening to the president, the course of action is clear: focus on gun legislation first and foremost, while preventing any non-gun control bills from seeing the light of day.

As it happens, 45 Democrats joined 117 Republicans as cosponsors on HR 2646. But only one — Oregon Democrat Kurt Schrader — voted in the affirmative during a recent crucial subcommittee vote to “put his constituents ahead of partisanship.”

One could easily see presidential candidate Obama assume a more constructive role in tackling this emotionally charged and complex issue. But with a presidential election looming and a “legacy” to secure, President Obama is showing little appetite for bipartisanship.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @IzzyOrtega.