Congress should strengthen mental health services

By U.S. Sen. Susan Collins

Susan Collins    The horrific tragedy that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, last December filled the hearts of all Americans with sorrow. It also brought to the forefront several crucial issues we must address to better understand and prevent the multiple causes of such terrible violence.

    In the aftermath of the shootings in Newtown, it is clear that we need to take a serious look at our mental health system to determine how we can better support and care for individuals and families afflicted by serious mental illness. Unfortunately, our current system is fragmented, and patients with serious mental illness all too often lack access to the care that they need. Over the course of a year, fewer than half of the people with severe mental disorders received treatment of any kind. Of the one in five Americans who will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives, it is estimated that only 20 percent will receive professional care. The need to repair our fragmented mental health system becomes all the more urgent given that an estimated 25 percent of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing some kind of mental health issues.

    That is why I have joined with a bipartisan group of Senators in introducing the “Excellence in Mental Health Act,” which addresses our fragmented mental health system by expanding access to care through America’s Community Mental Health Centers and holding the centers accountable through higher standards. The bill establishes criteria for Federally Qualified Community Behavioral Health Centers that cover a broad range of outpatient and crisis services and would help to better integrate physical and mental health care. Moreover, these centers would provide support for families and accept all patients, regardless of their ability to pay. Combined with a state-administered grant program to support the modernization and construction of facilities, these centers will help improve access to quality mental health treatment nationwide. It is estimated that expanded centers providing more services will be able to treat up to 1.5 million additional people as a consequence of our legislation.

    It is important to note that studies show that individuals with serious mental illnesses are actually more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. Studies also show, however, that in the absence of timely diagnosis, early intervention, and treatment, people experiencing acute psychosis are at risk of committing acts of violence at a rate 15 times higher than those in treatment.

    In announcing the introduction of our bill, we were joined by David O. Russell, Oscar-nominated director of Silver Linings Playbook, a powerful film that explores the struggles faced by a man who tries to rebuild his life after release from a mental-health institution. Mr. Russell, who experienced such struggles with his own son, called for continued work to remove the stigma from mental illness that often is a barrier to care. “We talk about diabetes, we talk about heart disease, so why can’t we talk about mental illness in a regular way?” Openly talking about mental illness and engaging with individuals living with mental illness and their families will increase the likelihood that they will be connected to the care that they need.

    Newtown sparked important discussions about the need to address the current background check system and making sure those adjudicated with a serious mental illness are prohibited from purchasing firearms, and on the glorification of violence in the media has contributed to the current problems with violence. The Connecticut shootings, as well as those in Colorado, Arizona, and too many others, make it clear that mental illness is a salient factor. We must also have a national dialogue about mental illness and determine how we, as a society, can better identify and care for individuals with mental illness who may pose a threat to themselves and others.

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