Just hours before a gunman killed nine people and himself at an Oregon community college last Thursday, 23 mental health groups called on Congress to pass “meaningful” legislation to fix the nation’s broken mental health system. The shooting was the latest in a series of mass killings by unstable young men, many of whom had difficulty accessing the mental health system.
While those with mental illness are generally no more violent than anyone else, the attacks have cast a spotlight on mental illness and yawning gaps in mental health care.
A comprehensive approach is long overdue, according to Dr. Kari Wolf, Ascension Seton vice president of medical affairs for behavioral health and president of the Ascension Seton Mind Institute.
“The U.S. doesn’t come close to having enough properly equipped facilities and properly staffed outpatient programs to meet psychiatric patient needs,” Wolf said. “That’s true in Travis County, it’s true in neighboring counties and it’s true throughout Texas and beyond.
“Austin is ahead of many communities in terms of organizations working together to meet local needs,” she said. “We have Ascension Seton Shoal Creek Hospital, the Ascension Seton Psychiatric Emergency Department at University Medical Center Brackenridge and other good efforts, but it’s all not nearly enough to help everyone locally who needs help.”
More than 13 million in the U.S. have a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression, but most cannot access the psychiatric care and services that could help them lead productive lives, according to the letter delivered to Congress.
Among those signing the letter are the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Council for Behavioral Health and the National League of Nursing.
Several individual bills addressing mental health needs are currently pending action in Congress. They include legislation by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to allow communities to use federal funds to expand crisis intervention teams. Already in place in some police departments around the country, the teams are trained to deescalate psychiatric crises, helping people with mental illness avoid arrest. Cornyn’s bill also promotes mental health courts that allow inmates with mental illness to receive treatment rather than remain in prison.
Another bill, the Mental Health Reform Act of 2015 by Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., would mandate comprehensive overhaul and strengthen America’s mental health care system. It would provide more resources, enhance coordination and develop meaningful solutions for families dealing with mental illness.