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A Do-Something Congress

Linda Rosenberg

Former President and CEO, National Council for Behavioral Health

A Do-Something Congress

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This editorial originally appeared in Roll Call.

As this lame-duck Congress limps to the end of its tenure, pundits are shouting about its ineffectiveness. The 113th Congress passed fewer laws than any Congress in 60 years. With control of the government still divided along party lines, many see little hope the next Congress will be any better.

But when it comes to mental health and addictions treatment, this Congress has been anything but lame, quietly launching a truly bipartisan effort to begin to address these complicated issues.

In March, Congress passed a Medicare bill that included a demonstration program based on the bipartisan Excellence in Mental Health Act, the most meaningful mental health and addictions care legislation enacted in well over a generation. The Act includes a groundbreaking investment in mental health and addictions treatment that will ultimately ensure more Americans get the care they need, when they need it.

Congress also took action to help Americans better understand mental illness and addictions — and help young people get the help they need. They appropriated $15 million for Mental Health First Aid training for teachers and others who work with youth to understand, recognize, and respond to signs of mental illness or addictions. The innovative training teaches adults how to talk to adolescents experiencing behavioral health problems so they may be more likely to seek treatment.

Why does this matter? With the rash of school shootings across the country, Congress clearly sees the benefits of training people to spot early warning signs of mental illness. Might intervention by a counselor or teacher have helped Jaylen Fryberg, a freshman at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Seattle, who killed four friends before taking his own life? His family remains puzzled about how a seemingly happy teen could commit such a horrendous act. Were there warning signs?

I challenge the new Congress to not only do something, but to do even more. A good first step in 2015 is to reintroduce and pass the Mental Health First Aid Act, authorizing $20 million in grants to fund Mental Health First Aid training programs for emergency services workers, police officers, primary care professionals, students, and others. The Act would create a host of Mental Health First Aiders nationwide trained to recognize symptoms of mental illnesses and addictions and de-escalate crisis situations.

Christina Jasberg of Tucson wishes people in her life had the skills taught in Mental Health First Aid. While struggling with an eating disorder and self-harming behavior, she said her closest friends and family abandoned her. “A lot of the time I was looking for help. My family and friends could have helped if they’d felt comfortable and confident,” said Christina, now in recovery. “If I hadn’t lost so many people close to me, my journey wouldn’t have been as lonely and painful.”

But recognizing the signs of mental illnesses and addictions and knowing what resources are available isn’t enough. We need to ensure treatment is there when people need it. That’s why Congress should act to expand the Excellence in Mental Health Act to every state. It’s not enough for some Americans to have access to robust mental health services — ALL Americans should have access, regardless of where they live.

No amount of training, legislation, or money can prevent every school shooting, stop every suicide, or avert every tragedy. But being aware of early signs and how to intervene can improve the odds not only of avoiding the bad, but increasing the good, and helping our young people get support long before they spiral down into a crisis.

With so many young lives at stake, I am confident the 114th Congress will build on the under-sung successes of the do-something 113th Congress.