National mental health reform stuck in Congress

National mental health reform keeps hitting snags.

Senators advanced a bill package in March that would push a 2008 law that requires health insurers to cover treatments for physical health and mental health the same way. Even with bipartisan support, the bill package faces issues in the House. Funding is always an issue, as is the issue of gun laws.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) proposed a mental health bill in combination with the bill package, but Democrats object to sections of the bill that they would allow mentally ill people easier access to guns.

Guns are often associated with mental health issues. At the same time that lawmakers don’t want firearms in the hands of those that are mentally ill, they don’t want to infringe on second amendment rights. Three bills in Illinois seek to keep guns away from the mentally ill. One bill requires court clerks to compile a list of all the people a judge deems mentally disabled to Illinois State Police at least twice a year so their Firearm Owners Identification card can be revoked.

“I think that by far, the most damaging misperception about mental illness is that people who have mental illnesses are violent,” said Danielle Fritze, Director of Public Education & Visual Communications at Mental Health America, a national advocate for mental health.

“Issues like substance abuse, homelessness and poverty play a much larger role in acts of violence, but media coverage of mass tragedies makes it seem like there is more of a connection between mental illness and violence than there really is,” Fritze said. “Often times, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of crimes than the perpetrators.”

Those that are mentally ill often fall victim to poor treatment, too, and don’t have accessible help. This problem is often seen in the microcosm of universities. One recent display was at Boston University, whose faults were shared in a Huffington Post blog.

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The blog tells the story of Naomi Carolan, a BU student who attempted to get an appointment at BU’s Student Health Services but was told there were no appointments available in the near future. Another mental health facility at BU gave her a similar response. When she tried to make an appointment with BU psychiatrists to get medication, she was told she could meet with them a month from then for an initial assessment, but would need another meeting for a final assessment and a meeting a month after her first trial of medication to adjust the dosage.

“I felt out of options,” Carolan writes.

The blog post prompted many other BU students to come forward with their grievances. In a follow-up post, one student writes of having to wait a month and a half for an appointment, and when they finally got in for their intake evaluation, they were told SHS couldn’t treat them. They were referred to other clinics, but those clinics didn’t have open appointments and were too far away from campus to mesh with their class schedule.

When asked to comment for this article, Boston University Student Health Services said they “maintain a policy where we do not assist students on class or professional related projects.”

The overload is not unique to Boston University. George Washington University’s Mental Health Services was also unavailable for comment as this is “the busiest time of year.”

Lawmakers know that students struggle with mental illness on campus and that the current facilities at most universities are not enough.

Sen. Dick Durbin D-Ill. introduced a bipartisan bill to the U.S. Senate in March to provide grants for mental health services on college campuses nationwide. The Mental Health on Campus Improvement Act was also reintroduced in the House by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.)

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“Campuses should be ground zero in our efforts to combat mental health issues, including suicides and episodes of gun violence, yet many colleges and universities are not equipped to provide mental health awareness, screening, and services,” said Schakowsky in a press release. “The Mental Health on Campus Improvement Act would provide the resources needed to get direct mental health services and outreach to students and families.”

Fritze of Mental Health America agrees that people are not receiving services as early as they need them.

“While college is a time when some people will first start to experience mental health problems, many more individuals experience the first signs of mental illness in their teen years,” Fritze said.

“The most pressing issues are funding mental health services and ensuring people have access to care,” said Fritze, who agrees with lawmakers that our country needs mental health reform and said the most pressing issues are funding mental health services and ensuring people have access to care.

Fritze said it is also important to de-stigmatize mental illness and the idea that mental illness is something that people should just “get over.”

“Mental illnesses are not a choice or a sign of personal weakness,” Fritze said. “People need help to recover from these conditions just as they do any other.”

For May is Mental Health Month, Mental Health America puts on a month-long education campaign and distributes toolkits with fact sheets, a mental health tips calendar, worksheets and more. The program reached more than 19 million people in 2015.

Cornyn on Thursday blamed the lack of coordination among Senate committees for the state of the legislation. For now, Cornyn’s mental health bill is under committee consideration.


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