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Now Is the Time for Congress to Enact Comprehensive Mental Health Legislation | Commentary

As Congress returns next week from the summer recess, it’s time to finally take action on comprehensive mental health reform. Nearly two years after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Conn. focused attention on the nation’s broken mental health system, there has been much discussion in Congress about how to improve mental health care but very little resolution.

Mental illness affects every American. One in four adults — or approximately 61.5 million Americans — experience mental illness in a given year. One in 17 — or about 13.6 million people–lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. Left untreated, or undertreated, the costs are incalculable to these individuals, their families and our society.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the third leading cause of death among people ages 15-24. More than 90 percent of those who die by suicide had a mental illness. We have seen the disproportionate impact of suicide on men and women who have served in the military. Every day, 22 veterans die from suicide, and 20 percent of all suicides involve veterans. That is unacceptable.

Lack of access to effective treatment for those living with mental illness is not only a health issue, but also an important fiscal issue. Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings and productivity every year. Individuals living with serious mental illness face an increased risk of having chronic medical conditions.

Furthermore, lack of mental health treatment can lead to negative consequences including high rates of incarceration, chronic homelessness, emergency room visits, and school failures. This is not only tragic for many individuals and families but also increases overall costs to the system and taxpayers. The fiscal costs to our society are exorbitant and the costs in terms of loss of human potential even greater.

The foundation for comprehensive and bipartisan mental health reform is already in place. Two significant bills have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, one by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., the other by Rep. Ron Barber, D- Ariz. Both bills contain many provisions that, if enacted, would represent major improvements in the mental health system.

In addition, Murphy has been tireless in his efforts over the past two years to elevate attention to issues and promote improvements in access and quality of mental health services. He has convened hearings which have focused unprecedented attention at the national level on the need for significant improvements in mental health care, as well as the devastating consequences for individuals and families when the mental health system fails them.

These hearings and the two bills provide a strong foundation for bipartisan congressional action. Both bills contain many positive provisions, including improvements in the integration of mental health and primary care services; protections in access to psychiatric medicines in Medicare and Medicaid; expanded resources for suicide prevention; resources for reducing the unnecessary incarceration of non-violent offenders with serious mental illness; and financial incentives for the adoption of health information technology in mental health and substance abuse treatment.

In addition to the provisions in common in both bills, there are other important provisions which should be swiftly enacted. For example, Murphy’s bill removes a discriminatory provision in Medicaid that denies coverage for acute care in inpatient facilities that primarily serve people with mental illness.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization, is launching a National Day of Action for Mental Health on September 4. Mental health advocates will converge on Capitol Hill, and thousands more will make their voices heard in Congress via social media and the #Act4MentalHealth campaign. Our message will be simple: Congress should pass comprehensive mental health reform this year.

Mental illness does not discriminate among Democrats or Republicans. The mental health system in America is in crisis and in desperate need of a fix today. NAMI, our members, and our supporters urge Congress to act now to pass comprehensive legislation to fix the mental health system. The stakes for millions of Americans and their families are too high for continued inaction.

Mary Giliberti is the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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