The tragic mass shootings that seem to plague our nation have triggered much debate. The discussions center largely on gun control, with both citizens and members of Congress remaining divided on the issue. There are staunch supporters of the Second Amendment and the right to own guns and there are advocates for better control of dangerous weapons. Another aspect of the debate surrounds the broad issue of mental health. Especially with the most recent mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, the issue of mental health has proven to be important. Upon investigation, it seems that the perpetrator had a long history of mental illness. With better treatment and care, the tragedy may have been avoided. Attempts in Congress to pass legislation in response to gun tragedies have included both gun control and mental health provisions. Some members of Congress are pushing especially hard for the latter.
The Mental Health First Aid Act
One senator in particular has advocated strongly for better legislation to address the mental health needs of Americans. As a result, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire, received the Legislator of the Year Award for 2013 from the National Council for Behavioral Health. In January 2013, Ayotte, along with Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, introduced the Mental Health First Aid Act. The National Council has honored Ayotte for working to strengthen the mental health care system in her home state and across the U.S. Unfortunately, the legislation introduced by Ayotte and Begich was not put to a vote in either the House or the Senate. The bill would have provided for $20 billion to help train certain community leaders to recognize mental illnesses. The training would also have included ways to deal with a mental health crisis or emergency situation and how to provide resources and referrals to those in need.
Senators Willing to Legislate
Ayotte has pointed out that the Senate would be overwhelmingly in favor of mental health care legislation. For evidence, she points to the bill that was brought to a vote in April 2013, which would have provided for background check procedures for gun purchases. It also included an amendment for mental health. Parts of that amendment came from the Mental Health First Aid Act. While the gun control bill failed in the Senate, the amendment for mental health passed overwhelmingly with a vote of 95 to 2. Now, because of the support shown for mental health legislation and the tragedy at the Navy Yard, Ayotte and Begich are asking their fellow members of the Senate to reconsider a mental health amendment. They believe that if the mental health provisions were separated from gun control legislation, a law would easily pass.
Justice and Mental Health
Sen. Ayotte also co-sponsored another bill aimed at increasing awareness and education for mental health issues. The Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act, if passed in Congress, would help improve mental health care across the U.S. by addressing the need for first aid training and crisis management. The bill would provide funding for training. That training would focus on law enforcement officers, first responders, teachers, nurses, college administrators, and other leaders to help them better understand and respond to mental health emergencies. In addition to improving mental health care, the supporters of the bill hope that it would also help with the justice system. Better training could help arresting officers understand situations in which mental illness plays a role. By recognizing the signs of mental illness, officers may be able to better serve those who suffer with it. Rather than simply arresting and charging someone whose actions are driven by a mental illness, the justice system could provide mental health care and make a real difference. With the work of Ayotte and others, we take steps toward getting people with mental illnesses the help and the care they need. The time for stigmatizing mental illness is over. It is time to treat them as real, medical diseases.