Before entering politics in the mid-1990s, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy was a practicing psychologist. Now, with 13 of the 25 deadliest mass shootings in the country’s history having occurred since 2000, Murphy is introducing a bill that he says will reform the way America cares for and about its mentally ill.
“The federal government spends $125 billion annually on mental health,” Murphy told a small assembly at Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh last Thursday. That sum includes, he added, no allocation for collecting data or coordinating services.
According to Murphy, a South Hills Republican who represents Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, the problems with America’s mental health care system are many and far reaching, including a glaring lack of inpatient hospital beds, mental health professionals and the federal infrastructure to oversee and implement the development of new standards of evidence-based care.
He praised JF&CS and similar agencies across the country, saying they are “on the front lines and doing tremendous work,” despite being financially handcuffed.
Murphy’s legislation, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, calls for a complete overhaul of American mental health care, starting with the creation of an assistant secretary for mental health and substance use disorders within the Department of Health and Human Services.
“I want this person to have some mojo behind their name,” Murphy said.
The bill would also funnel grant money into pushing states to modernize their approaches toward mental illness laws. Twenty-three states only allow for involuntary commitment of a mentally ill person if they meet an “imminent danger standard,” which Murphy says is nearly impossible to discern given the lack of communication between patients, their families and their mental health professionals.
The legislation also calls for changes to HIPAA and FERPA standards in order to ease communication between care providers and the families of mentally ill patients. Murphy would also like to see the reauthorization of mental health courts to deal with prison inmates and alleged criminals that he thinks might not belong in regular correctional facilities. The court would offer alternatives to institutionalization where appropriate and provide some mental health training for law enforcement officers.
“If you have someone who is mentally ill, violent or delusional, they put them in isolation or chain them down,” Murphy said. “They don’t belong there. They need to be in a forensic treatment center with people who can work with them.”
Additionally, the bill seeks to reach out to rural and underserved populations via tele-psychiatry, establishing a new research initiative through the National Institute of Mental Health, launching a national campaign to raise mental health awareness among children and teens, increasing volunteerism among physicians and implementing new standards of evidence-based care in community behavioral health organizations.
Murphy is currently seeking co-sponsors for the bill, which he hopes will have initial hearings in April. He couldn’t provide a figure for how much the bill’s reforms might cost, and said that his office was still working to produce a figure for the portion that would create the new office under HHS.
“There are solutions. People don’t know that there are treatments to help them get better,” Murphy said. “We have to treat them like people as opposed to locking them up in handcuffs and taking them away.”
(Matthew Wein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)