Bipartisan lawmakers have struggled to find ways to increase access to long-neglected mental health services for Americans. Though Republicans and Democrats have contrasting views on Obamacare and healthcare reform as a whole, many lawmakers have found common ground in the need for increased access to mental health services in the wake of America’s mass shooting epidemic.
To solve this, Republicans in congress maintain that gun-related violence is best addressed through increases in spending for mental health programs, rather than by cracking down on gun control legislation.
“We have seen consistently that an underlying cause of these attacks has been mental illness, House Speaker Paul Ryan said recently. “We should look at ways to address the problem.”
Democrats, including President Obama agree that the federal mental health system ought be reworked so that it better addresses increased violence and mass shootings. Democrats also argue that gun laws—especially those concerning background checks of gun owners—should be addressed simultaneously with increased access to mental health services. As such, the parties disagree on how to move this legislation forward.
“If we’re looking at the gap between the parties, Democrats are very fearful that Republicans are going to use the mental health issue to basically say, ‘See, we’ve done something about guns,” congressional scholar Norman Ornstein explained to The Fiscal Times. “They’ve got a point, certainly. But if the idea is that you basically kill action on a bill because some people are going to use it as traction on the gun issue, it’s pretty unfortunate.”
And while mental health has come to the forefront in the wake of oft-publicized mass shootings, the relationship between mental health and other criminal behavior that is not nearly as violent or sensational may not be getting the attention that it needs.
The federal government spends nearly $130 billion annually on substance abuse and mental health care programs and facilities. And even more money is wasted utilizing prisons and jails as virtual warehouses for mentally ill individuals, a majority of which have committed non-violent acts and would benefit from rehabilitation or other alternatives to incarceration.
Legal experts note that many mentally ill inmates are subject to cruelty, abuse, and solitary confinement and leave the criminal justice system no better off than when they entered because their sentences were enacted as a means of punishment, rather than to help ease their mental health issues.
Those in the legal system are all too familiar with shortcoming of “treating” mentally ill criminals by incarcerating them for long periods of time.
“Warehousing these defendants in jail does not solve their issues,” observes attorney Ryan Albaugh, who has defended many mentally ill individuals charged with drug crimes. “It only returns them to the street facing the same mental health challenges that led them to use and abuse drugs in the first place.”
And our nation’s problems attributed to mental health aren’t limited to the judicial system, either. Consider:
- According to the the Kim Foundation, an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Yet many individuals go without care due to the issue of stigma in mental health treatment, as well as cost of treatment.
- 20-25 percent of the homeless population suffers from some form of severe mental illness. Better mental health services provided to at risk demographics would aid in combating not only mental illness, but homelessness as well. Sadly still, law enforcement agencies in many areas continue to criminalize homelessness rather than provide these services.
- There is no top level official to coordinate the work of federal and state programs for mental health services.
Despite the obvious shortcomings of Federal mental health services, several members of congress from both parties have proposed a variety solutions to improve the system.
Representatives Tim Murphy and Eddie Bernice Johnson have advanced legislation which would “consolidate federal mental-health programs under a single assistant secretary,” as well as expand treatment services. The bill also promises to eliminate the a laws which limit the use of Medicaid to cover treatment of those with mental illnesses and drug addictions.
Senator Chris Murphy sponsored a similar bill, but it has been significantly gutted in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and now lacks a number of features currently offered by the House bill.
Champions of mental health care reform on both sides are hopeful for compromise, but other obstacles remain which may not be as easy to overcome.
Democrats have pushed for consideration of gun control measures within the new mental health reform legislation, which has been met with strong opposition from Republicans. As Caitlin Owens reported last week in the Morning Consult, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell along with other Senate GOP leaders refuse to bring a bill to the floor during this session if it means GOP senators—who are up for reelection this year—would be forced to vote on gun control amendments.
“This bill is not a gun issue, it’s a mental health issue,” said Rep Tim Murphy to The Washington Post.
For now, agreement on mental health care reform seems to be a long shot in the wake of the 2016 presidential race. But many hope that the two sides will be able to come together before year’s end.
With the increasing prevalence of mass shootings happening yearly in the United States, issues of mental health care accessibility have captivated lawmakers on both side of the political spectrum. John Snook, who heads a non-partisan group campaigning for legislative reforms that seek to help mentally ill Americans, has begun talks with House and Senate Democratic and Republican leaders, which he hopes could lead to progress in this arena.
“Honestly, before these discussions, I probably would have told you that we were at a point where things were just too polarized and too broken,” Snook told The Fiscal Times. “ But you now have members of Congress who typically aren’t talking about any other issue, but they are having conversations on these mental health issues. And I’m really optimistic that we’re getting things done.”