Mental health advocates flood Capitol Hill, demanding major overhaul

Proposals get more congressional support after Oregon college massacre

Pop star Demi Lovato joins National Council for Behavioral Health president Linda Rosenberg on the Capitol steps during #HillDay15 rally.  (Cred: Chance Seales)
Pop star Demi Lovato joins National Council for Behavioral Health president Linda Rosenberg on the Capitol steps during #HillDay15 rally. (Cred: Chance Seales) (Copyright by WSLS - All rights reserved)

Chance Seales, National Correspondent – (WASHINGTON) MEDIA GENERAL – Hundreds of mental health advocates from around the country converged on Washington Tuesday to call for a more robust psychological safety net in America.

Even pop star Demi Lovato – who's been outspoken about her own mental health difficulties – joined the group to lobby lawmakers

Supporters roamed the halls of Congress for eight hours, sitting down with staffers in hopes of bolstering a handful of major bipartisan bills designed to retool America's mental health system.

The pre-planned day took on national significance following the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon – one in a long string of recent deadly attacks.

Ginger Bandeen flew in from Portland, OR, to take part in the event. As a mental health professional and mother of an Oregon community college student, Bandeen says tragedies like the one in Roseburg, "Help us remember we're all part of the same community and help us remember how important it is to support all the members of our community."

While mentally ill people are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence, congressional sponsors suggest a stronger system of detection and care would lead to better outcomes for all patients, including those prone to violence.

The result: a laser-like legislative focus on prevention.

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.), a clinically trained psychologist, says a fundamental discrepancy in the treatment of mental and physical health necessitates the changes found in his proposed legislation:

"[Mentally ill patients] may languish in a jail cell, they may be tied down to a gurney in the emergency room, they may be discharged to go out and do dangerous things. All of those are wrong. We would never do that if someone had a heart attack, or a strong, say ‘there are no beds, just get out of here.' We are obliged to take care of them."

Murphy's bill Helping Families In Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015 now has 132 co-sponsors in the House. It would boost funding for preventive care, ensure family members' access to critical treatment information of loved ones, increase the number of psychological professionals in the U.S., provide hospital beds for psychiatric emergencies, and ensure mental health is taken as seriously as physical well-being.

Professional psychological organizations back an array of proposed remedies, but largely agree that the congressional bills are on the right track.

Linda Rosenberg, president of the National Council for Behavioral Health which organized Tuesday's rally, wants the federal government to help states rebuild their health care infrastructures through the Excellence in Mental Health Act, which incentivizes community-based care.  She argues that mental health services should be as abundant as doctors' offices.

Paul Gionfriddo of Mental Health America supports the House and Senate bills, saying he's encouraged by the emphasis lawmakers have placed on prevention.  Gionfriddo, the group's president, points out, "For the longest time, we really have been trapped into thinking only in terms of post-crisis intervention. So, the fact that people are beginning to look upstream, I think is critically important."

Progress is also being seen in the Senate.

The Mental Health Reform Act of 2015 is co-sponsored by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).  It's currently in the Health Committee (HELP) gathering sponsors for action later this month. Their bill would enact provisions largely similar to Rep. Murphy's proposal.

Finding money for the programs is still a work in progress.

Rep. Murphy acknowledges that additional funding is a necessary – if challenging – element of his measure, but describes the obstacle as surmountable through subsequent savings on services like emergency care.

Furthermore, Murphy argues the greatest cost is Americans' lost lives. Murphy puts the number of mental health-related deaths at up to 100,000 per year: "41,000 suicide deaths, 43,000 drug overdose deaths, 1200-1500 homicides," and up to 30,000 people who suffer the "slow motion death of homelessness."

Mary Ruiz treats patients in Tampa Bay, FL. On Capitol Hill, Ruiz noticed a shift in congressional sentiment, saying "Congress people have families, too. They know these stories personally. And I'm a sensing a personal mission with many congress people that they want to make a difference on this issues."

The House and Senate are considering a number of legislative options on mental health. If both chambers pass their own versions, a House-Senate conference committee would work to hammer out a final, identical, bill before the end of the term.