Mental Health in the Spotlight Thursday on Capitol Hill


By Lena H. Sun



Top health officials from the Obama administration will discuss the problems facing the nation’s fragmented mental health system at a congressional hearing Thursday — the first time the Senate has addressed comprehensive mental health legislation since a troubled young man killed 26 children and staff at a Connecticut elementary school in 2012.

But the hearing, set to start at 10 a.m. before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, won’t be the day’s only discussion of mental health on Capitol Hill.

The American Psychiatric Association is hosting an afternoon briefing in the House on decriminalizing people with mental illness. According to the most recent federal statistics, about 20 percent of prison inmates have a serious mental illness and 30 percent to 60 percent have substance abuse problems.

Months of deadly mass shootings have prompted renewed momentum in Congress for mental health reform, advocates and lawmakers say. On Tuesday, more than 30 mental health and medical organizations sent a letter to HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and ranking minority-party member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) calling for a greater effort “to provide more effective prevention measures, more timely access, and improve the continuity of care within our mental health system.”

The issues could become part of the presidential campaign rhetoric — and not in the way that advocates might want. During Wednesday night’s Republican debate in Colorado, Donald Trump linked mental illness and gun mayhem, saying mass shooters look for gun-free zones for their rampages.

“That’s target practice for the sickos and for the mentally ill,” he told moderator Carl Quintanilla.

During the Senate hearing, one focus is likely to be a proposal introduced by two committee members — Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a physician, and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) — that parallels a House bill sponsored by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), a child psychologist.