More than two years ago, a mentally ill young man shot 20 children and six adults to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Many experts blamed an underfunded and inadequate behavioral healthcare system at least partly for the tragedy, and there were widespread calls for national reform. But it hasn't happened.
The mentally ill still face major barriers to accessing care years after states and municipalities slashed their mental health budgets, resulting in sharp cuts in capacity at inpatient and outpatient treatment facilities. There's also a dwindling supply of behavioral health professionals.
The Newtown murders, along with the horrendous 2011 shooting spree in Arizona by another mentally ill young man that killed six and severely wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, did not convince Congress to pass a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's mental health system. And mental health providers and advocates say any action remains a long shot.
But behavioral health stakeholders are gearing up for another push for legislation in 2015, uniting behind a bill first introduced in 2013 by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), a psychologist who spent more than a year holding hearings on mental illness after the Sandy Hook shootings. But while many professional and patient-advocacy groups back the measure, others fear the proposal will shift the focus away from relying on community-based mental healthcare providers and undermine the years put into deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill in the U.S.
“We're concerned about moving in that direction,” said John Head, spokesman for the Washington-based Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, which opposes the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act sponsored by Murphy. “We want to incentivize states to provide more community-based services, make them more accessible so that people have the care they need, when they need it, where they need it.”