Bills addressing behavioral health are piling up on the Hill at a time when the nation is reeling from the incarceration, instead of treatment, of the mentally ill.
On Thursday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), along with Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced a bill that supports suicide prevention programs and integrating behavioral health and primary-care services.
Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) will also reportedly soon introduce legislation to combine mental and medical services under one roof.
Last month, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) introduced a House bill which also pushes for more inpatient beds.
Both bills request that a position addressing mental health and substance abuse be created within HHS and that funding for research and expanded treatments be a federal priority.
John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, wants to seize the rare bipartisan support for this issue.
Financing mental health treatment beds in hospitals, creating assisted outpatient treatment and using mental health courts is great but not enough, he said.
“You can't have any effective reform of prisons and jails without including mental illness,” he said.
One effort at this kind of reform, the SAFE Justice Act—which leadership has promised will get a vote on the House floor—calls for using sentencing alternatives, like counseling and drug therapy, for those with substance abuse issues and mental health treatment for those suited for it.
Tim Murphy's House bill includes law enforcement training, assisted outpatient treatment and mental health courts, all of which have been shown to have success on the state level. They are also methods that some experts say would prevent incidents like that of Sandra Bland, the woman who reportedly committed suicide after a confrontational arrest in Texas.
A senior Republican aide said while most attention so far has been on front-end sentencing reform, there has been talk of including mental health components.
“We anticipate that both types of reform will be part of any package that moves forward in the Senate," he said.
The aide also said there are back-end efforts at reducing recidivism, which is often a problem for the mentally ill.
Paul Gionfriddo, CEO of Mental Health America, said the criminal justice system puts people with mental illness through a cycle of incarceration, hospitalization and homelessness.
When people are released from incarceration, they are often disqualified from public assistance that could help them get back on their feet. Without treatment, they continue to self-medicate by abusing drugs and can't afford necessities like food and shelter, he said.
They often end up right back in jail or prison without access to resources that could keep them out, he said.