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Creating a National Strategy for Mental Health | Commentary

If a friend or a co-worker takes us aside and confides that he has been diagnosed with cancer, we give him a shoulder to lean on. We ask what we can do. But most of all, we care. We understand.

But if that same individual tells us he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia or depression or bipolar disorder, we are quiet. We shy away. We don’t know what to say, what to do. We don’t understand.

Both are illnesses — one of the body, the others of the brain. But the ways we react to them are vastly different.

That must change, and that’s why my House colleagues and I introduced the Strengthening Mental Health in Our Communities Act.

We must do more to improve access to home- and community-based services for individuals who have a mental illness and increase early identification and prevention services.

Our bill will create a national strategy for mental health to strengthen the mental health system and set the goals and policies for the future of mental health services in America.

We will be asking more from existing mental health programs and seeking better outcomes for individuals and families affected by mental illness.

This legislation also will improve services for populations most in need including veterans, youth, Native Americans and older adults.

I am deeply concerned that 1 out of 5 children and adolescents live with a mental illness. This legislation will provide grants for schools and communities to create comprehensive mental health programs.

Too many of our veterans are living with a mental illness and not getting the services they deserve. This legislation increases the number of mental health professionals within the Department of Veterans Affairs and makes certain that all of our veterans, from WWII to Afghanistan, are eligible for care.

We need research today to find the best treatments of tomorrow. More than 90 percent of people who commit suicide have been diagnosed with a mental illness. This legislation invests in additional research on serious mental illness and suicide so we can learn more about how to treat those who are potentially a danger to themselves or others.

It is important to note that 95 percent of people with a mental illness will never commit a violent crime and are more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator.

But we cannot ignore the fact that in a number of recent mass shootings, the perpetrator was living with an undiagnosed or untreated serious mental illness.

On Jan. 8, 2011, a young man opened fire at then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ Congress On Your Corner event in Tucson, Ariz. Six people were killed and 13 others — including Gabby and me — were wounded.

Our assailant had been banned from classes at a local community college for his threatening and inexplicable behavior, but he never was diagnosed or treated for his mental illness until he was put in prison. That’s wrong.

Through training programs like Mental Health First Aid, our legislation will increase awareness of the signs of mental illness and the treatment available so that teachers, first-responders, family members and friends can understand the symptoms and know where to get the care they need.

One of every 4 Americans will have a mental illness at least once in their lifetime. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, untreated mental illness costs us more than $100 billion a year.

Yet, across this country, there have been devastating cuts to mental-health services, putting tens of thousands of citizens at great risk. States have cut more than $1.6 billion for mental health services since 2009.

Investing in early identification, prevention and treatment services for people with mental illness saves lives and money.

Americans deserve to have access to mental health resources. Families deserve to know that resources will be available to them to help their loved ones.

I know all too well the adverse effects of a broken mental health system. Mental illness must be addressed at all levels — and we cannot wait until a crisis has occurred. We must be proactive in providing prevention and early intervention services and protecting effective programs that are helping people today.

We must come together to address these issues. I am committed to working with my House colleagues and mental health professionals and advocates to increase access to mental health services in our communities and all across America.

Rep. Ron Barber is a Democrat representing Arizona’s 2nd District.