Having failed thus far in pushing gun control legislation through Congress, the White House has turned to the much less controversial effort of improving the quality of the nation's mental health services.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden on Tuesday announced $100 million in new federal funding to bolster mental health care at community health centers and for new facilities in rural areas across the nation.
His announcement came on the heels of a meeting with families of victims of last December's massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which spurred an unsuccessful effort to restrict firearms but also began a national dialogue on the need to seriously address the poor state of mental health care in America.
The Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza, and the gunman in the killing spree at the Washington Navy Yard, Aaron Alexis, both were suffering from some form of mental illness. While there remains a deep divide over whether gun control is part of the answer to prevent such violent acts, there is widespread agreement that improved mental health care is needed.
But specialists say Tuesday's announcement is merely a drop in the bucket of what is truly needed to address the problem.
"It's a small pebble in the pond There is simply not enough resources, whether it is private funds, [health] insurance funds or public funds. This is a small step in the right direction," said Jamison Monroe Jr., founder and CEO of Connecticut's Newport Academy, a premier teen mental health treatment center located 30 miles from Newtown.
Part of the problem, Mr. Monroe added, is that mental illness remains deeply misunderstood and stigmatized. It's also a much more complex issue to address than a relatively simple step such as restricting the availability of guns.
"Behind closed doors in the comfort of their own homes, everybody would agree [we need better mental health services]. But not everybody is willing to stand on a pulpit and go to bat for that," Mr. Monroe said.
A year after the White House announced it was making mental health and mental illness a top priority, little of note has been accomplished. In unveiling a new round of federal spending, Mr. Biden acknowledged the problem remains as daunting as ever.
"The fact that less than half of children and adults with diagnosable mental health problems receive the treatment they need is unacceptable," Mr. Biden said in a statement. "The president and I have made it a priority to do everything we can to make it easier to access mental health services."
The administration's allies in Congress also have pushed the issue, but have found minimal success so far. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, praised Tuesday's announcement while adding lawmakers must take the next step and pass the stalled Excellence in Mental Health Act, which she authored.
"I applaud the administration's commitment to mental health services and to reduce the stigma around mental illness," she said. "Passing our bill to establish federally qualified community mental health centers and paying for mental health services the same way we pay for physical health services is the logical next step following today's action."
The $100 million announced by Mr. Biden will be split between two federal departments. The Department of Health and Human Services will use $50 million to fund community health centers and to expand behavioral health services, the White House said.
The other $50 million will flow to the Agriculture Department and will be used to establish or expand mental health facilities in rural areas.
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