Pass Comprehensive Mental Health Reform to Support Community Resilience

After the first reports of the shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif., on Wednesday, mental illness was not much in the conversation. That’s unusual, say several news outlets. More often than not after a mass shooting, commentators, reporters and public officials speculate on or blame mental illness. It may be that “lone wolf” scenarios — the typical case  — more easily fit into a mental illness narrative, but this instance involved at least two suspects, a husband and wife.

Then, if this case had been typical, what followed would have been calls for mental health reform, gun reform, or both. The idea is that a change in public policy may finally curb a proliferation of mass violence in our country. The American Psychiatric Association has positions on both these policy matters, and we’ve called for both mental health reform and gun reform — as a public health matter — for years.

But today, I think it’s appropriate we think about the victims, the survivors, the families and the community. So today, the APA calls on Congress to pass comprehensive mental health reform, not because there’s any evidence that the suspects had a mental illness or that such legislation will prevent shootings from happening. We do so because those who are injured and survive such traumas, and those who lost their mom, dad, wife, husband, daughter, son or colleague in this tragedy need and deserve access to care. It’s a matter of supporting the community, who must carry on with their lives even as they are forever scarred by the latest act of bloodshed.

The fact is that our mental health system is fractured. And the fact is that it needs improvements, policy changes and new investment. And the good news is that, today, there is already bicameral, bipartisan legislation to fix it. In the House, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) have garnered broad support for their bill, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 2646). In the Senate, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) have championed a similar bill, the Mental Health Reform Act of 2015. We support both bills.

Bipartisan legislation in the House and Senate would address the mental health system by ensuring better coordination of federal mental health resources, more strongly monitoring and enforcing the existing mental health parity law, establishing a national plan to boost the mental health workforce, and increasing research funding ($40 million annually in the Senate version) for the National Institute of Mental Health. If enacted, these provisions and others in the two bills will help patients and families struggling with mental illness, but who lack access to needed care.

We need mental health reform to help the victims of San Bernardino and every other community struck by violence, including Newtown, Conn., which experienced tragedy nearly three years ago. We need mental health reform to help patients and their families throughout America get the access to care they so desperately need. Patients, families and communities can’t afford to wait any longer.

Renee Binder, MD, is president of the American Psychiatric Association.

Note: This article first appeared on Dec 4, 2015, on the APA Blogs page.