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Blog: Sandy Hook tragedy drives pressure for action on mental healthcare

Moments after gunman Adam Lanza's mass murder of 26 people—including 20 children—at Sandy Hook Elementary last week, President Barack Obama called on the nation's leaders to set politics aside and take “meaningful action” to prevent future tragedies like the one in Newtown, Conn.

In less than a week's time, those efforts are taking shape in Washington as some lawmakers have made a connection between the nation's recent spate of shooting sprees and the need for stronger mental healthcare services—and adequate federal funding for those services—in America.

Two days after the massacre, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) appeared on “Fox News Sunday” calling for a federal commission on mass violence. “It's like the slogan we use in Homeland Security: 'See something; say something,'” Lieberman said. “If you see a younger person that really looks like they are really troublesome, get them mental health help,” he continued. “Is there enough mental health help available for these kids?”Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) echoed the need for improved mental healthcare services in a lengthy statement he released after the Newtown tragedy. “Today, Medicaid is the largest payer of mental health services in the U.S.,” Rockefeller said. “Unfortunately, as both state and federal budget cuts have mounted nationwide, both inpatient and community services for children and adults living with serious mental illness have been downsized or eliminated,” he continued. “We must fix that.”

Mark Covall, president and CEO of the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems, warned that the funding problem could worsen if policymakers don't find a solution to the fiscal cliff.

“If there is no agreement and the sequester kicks in, mental health funding through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration would be reduced by over 5%,” Covall said in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, Chuck Ingoglia, senior vice president of public policy and practice improvement at the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, said the kind of mental healthcare services a person receives depends largely on where that person lives. “We don't have a rational mental health system,” Ingoglia said in a phone interview this week. He added that in too many of this violent acts, “Someone said: 'Something is wrong with them.'”

That is why Ingoglia thinks Mental Health First Aid, a mental health training program, is an essential resource and would like to see it used on high school and college campuses.

His organization—which represents about 1,950 behavioral healthcare organizations—also strongly supports legislation introduced in both chambers of Congress this year that focus on strengthening the nation's community mental health centers: Rep. Doris Matsui's (D-Calif.) Excellence in Mental Health Act; Sen. Debbie Stabenow's (D-Mich.) bill of the same name; and Sen. Jack Reed's (D-R.I.) Community-Based Mental Health Infrastructure Improvements Act in the Senate.

“There has not been any movement on either of these bills,” Ingoglia said later in an e-mail, “But we are certainly hopeful that as Congress thinks about appropriate response to strengthen the mental health safety-net that these bills will be advanced.”

You can follow Jessica on Twitter @MHJZigmond.
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