Growing Momentum for Mental Health Reform

While other issues face political gridlock, bipartisan momentum is growing in Congress for mental health reform, including improved access to care, early intervention and involvement by caregivers in treatment plans.

While other issues face political gridlock, bipartisan momentum is growing in Congress for mental health reform, including improved access to care, early intervention and involvement by caregivers in treatment plans.

Congress last passed mental health legislation in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act.

However, bipartisan momentum is building to finally reform our nation’s mental health system to provide more comprehensive and effective treatment and support for individuals and their families.

According to the National Association of Mental Illness, approximately one in five adults in the U.S. (43.7 million) experience mental illness each year, and one in 25 adults (13.6 million) are affected by a serious mental illnesses, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Mental illness impacts nearly every aspect of a person’s life, yet those with a disease often face tremendous difficulties receiving treatment.

The lack of diagnosis and treatment can lead to homelessness, substance abuse or even violence in some cases. Furthermore, a stigma surrounds the disease causing those affected to feel inadequate and even embarrassed, so the disease is kept a secret adding more barriers to receiving proper treatment.

At the National Journal's briefing, Mental Health Reform: Improving Access to Care and Reducing Incarceration, Congressman Tim Murphy, R-PA, said, “No more moments of silence. We need moments of action.”

Before joining Congress, Murphy spent three decades as a psychologist. Using this experience, he is spearheading efforts in the House to comprehensively reform the mental health system through his bill, H.R. 2646, The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. Across the Capitol, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy (CT) has introduced similar legislation, the Mental Health Reform Act of 2015.

While these proposals have some important differences, the overall goal is to establish meaningful reforms, like early intervention programs and amending provisions of the HIPPA privacy laws to meet the needs of all patients. Here is one key contrast between the two plans: The House version provides incentives for states that implement assisted outpatient treatment while the Senate version does not.

One of the biggest problems with the current system is lack of access. In 1950, the country had more than 500,000 psychiatric beds, but that number has drastically fallen in the last 65 years. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of beds decreased by 14 percent to fewer than 45,000, a statistic Sen. Murphy highlights.

Today, experts say the country has a shortage of nearly 100,000 beds. The proposed legislation seeks to address this problem. The House measure would provide additional beds for patients with acute mental health crises and allow them to receive immediate inpatient care for less than 30 days. Additionally, both bills repeal current Medicaid law that prevents patients from receiving treatment for both physical and mental health in the same day.

Early intervention is critical for those who suffer from mental illness. In fact, the National Alliance of Mental Illness finds that 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24. By establishing early intervention grant programs, as offered in both House and Senate bills, professionals could learn and implement best practices and intervene before an illness progresses.

Though medicine and professional therapy are important, parents and caregivers play a vital role. They can offer insight into an individual’s medical history and life experiences, which is critical information for medical professionals.

However, certain aspects of the HIPPA privacy rule prevent caregivers from assisting in the treatment plan. This is especially important for parents who are caring for a mentally ill child living at home. The House and Senate offer differing degrees of this provision, but amending current law is a priority in both measures.

Unlike a government funding package and other time-sensitive issues in Congress, reforming the mental health system does not have a hard deadline. Congressional leaders acknowledge that tragedies -- including the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., Sandy Hook Elementary and most recently at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg -- rally momentum and help spotlight the need for action.

But the shootings also stress the importance of reform, whether or not gun violence is involved, and these two congressmen hope that the grassroots movements and bipartisan support will grow and that Congress will pass comprehensive reform in 2015.