Candice Miller for Congress, Michigan

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The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act could help save lives

by Candice Miller on February 27, 2014


Op-Ed by: U.S. Rep. Candice Miller

Macomb Daily

The victims of serious mental illness in America know full well the heavy toll it imposes on the lives of those afflicted, their families and loved ones.

Rarely but tragically – as in the form of the senseless and unspeakable massacre of first graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 – the rest of us know too what can happen when severe mental illness goes undetected or untreated.

Experience tells us we will look in vain for simple answers to the question of how such tragedies can be prevented, especially ones that are consistent with the values of a self-governing republic.

We also know that broad new restrictions on all citizens to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights would be neither practical nor effective.

But we can seek to remedy obvious flaws in our approach to the treatment of mental illness. Flaws that too often leave the severely ill homeless or incarcerated, their families in despair and the rest of society feeling helpless or numb.

I believe legislation introduced in Congress by Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican and psychologist, represents an opportunity to do that.

This legislation, of which I am a co-sponsor, would be the first overhaul of the federal government’s approach to mental illness in 20 years. Its aim is to target spending more effectively and establish a framework for treatment that would funnel assistance to those in greatest need.

It would also empower parents and other caregivers for the seriously mental ill to play a more active role in treatment by removing barriers to their interaction with physicians, psychiatrists and other providers.

In the last seven decades, the number of psychiatric patients receiving institutional care has declined fifteen-fold from 600,000 to 40,000. Much of this decline can be attributed to advances in out-patient therapy. Sadly, a significant proportion is the result of budget pressures that have left the chronically ill fending for themselves or, increasingly, in prison or jail.

The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 3717) would expand the authority of courts and treatment centers to enroll the seriously mentally ill in assisted out-patient treatment plans and to enforce their implementation, thereby reducing the number of patients with diagnosed, severe mental illness who go without or fail to adhere to therapy and/or drug treatment programs. (Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech in the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history in 2007, for example, had been diagnosed with severe mental illness and ordered into out-patient treatment; he failed to comply.)

It would also link federal mental health grants to the states to modifications in the definition of mental illness requiring a treatment plan. In many states, including Michigan, court-ordered treatment often cannot be imposed absent evidence that the victim of mental illness presents an imminent danger to himself or to others. By modifying that standard to one in which treatment could be ordered for those who obviously cannot manage their daily affairs, we could ensure more of the severely mentally ill are cared for and increase peace of mind for their families.

With these, and other changes in federal mental health policy contained in this proposal, I believe we could make real progress in the treatment of those among us suffering from serious mentally illness. For them, for their families and for the innocent who, rarely but tragically, fall victim to untreated madness, we have an obligation to try.

Candice S. Miller is the U.S. Representative 10th Congressional District from Harrison Township

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