I Watched C-SPAN Once

… or, What Our Representatives in Congress are Saying About Mental Health

Reps. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) and Tim Murphy (R-PA) appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Today to discuss the state of federal mental health programs post-Newtown. The two Congressional House representatives are the co-chairs of the Mental Health Caucus, a 89% Democrat faction of Congress working to educate and advocate to their colleagues and the the nation on issues related to mental health. The one-hour segment, in which the two congresspersons answered questions from callers and the host whose name I have no interest in looking up, left me with mixed feelings.

First things first, I think Grace Napolitano is awesome. She drafted the Mental Health in Schools Act of 2011, which was referred to a congessional committee on February 17 of that year, where it’s been sitting around collecting co-sponsors (56 so far, all Democrat), waiting for a possible vote. She’s outspoken about mental health issues, and incredibly well-educated about them. All things considered, she’s one of the best allies we’ve got.

Tim Murphy, with three decades of experience as a psychologist behind him, also provides the mental health expertise that Congress needs if it’s going to make any progress.

While bipartisan consensus on the importance of mental health has not yet been achieved, the two co-chairs were in agreement that mental health services are not meeting our current need. $4.5 billion have been cut from state mental health budgets in the past five years, and while some of this has been the result of financial necessity, it is possible to work within budget limitations without cheating those in need, the representatives contend.

I applaud Napolitano for mentioning and explaining stigma. She blamed the fear and confusion that surround mental health for Congress’ failure to get together on the issue. She clearly had a greater understanding of that fact than did Murphy, who repeatedly implied that violence was the primary reason for the importance of mental healthcare.

Obviously, talking about violence was inevitable: the Newtown tragedy was, after all, the focus of the discussion. But Napolitano was able to bring viewer attention to the “big picture,” so I was instantly turned off by Murphy’s unwillingness to do the same. As I said in a previous post, tragedies like that in Newtown have a way of making people “miss the point” in the national mental health conversation, so I’m skeptical of any media coverage of Newtown insisting on discussing mental health just because of Newtown.

Murphy expressed that he’s very interested in taking a line-by-line look at the federal mental health budget. Taking a very serious look at where money earmarked for mental health is probably absolutely necessary at this point. Beds are closing, employers aren’t always able to provide insurance coverage for mental health services, educators and police officers who deal with mental health every day don’t have the proper training. It’s possible, if not definite, that the money we’re already spending can mitigate some of this if we get it sorted out and headed in the right direction. Whether this will actually happen, though, is anyone’s guess.

Other areas of reform mentioned in the interview included prisons, where the majority of inmates need, but don’t receive, psychological services. The complicated interplay of biology, education, parents, media, and government in mental health was briefly discussed as an area needing more understanding and research. Above all, the chairpersons agreed, the public needs to be educated.

That an active mental health caucus in Congress even exists is a positive sign. That there are officials voting on our laws who care about mental health, and know what they’re talking about, should help me and advocates like me sleep a little better at night. The changes we need can only happen, though, if we all want them for the right reasons.

(Watch the Washington Today interview here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/RPAR)

(Track Napolitano’s Mental Health in Schools Act (HR-751) here: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr751)

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