Medical experts and advocates told a Capitol Hill forum Tuesday that Congress could close some gaping holes in the country’s mental health system virtually overnight, but a key Democratic lawmaker said he didn’t foresee any action on the issue in the near future.
The forum was the first such panel convened on Capitol Hill by a House Republican — Rep. Tim Murphy, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee — in the wake of the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. in December.
“[T]he vast majority of people with severe mental illness are not violent,” Mr. Murphy, a psychologist who also co-chairs the Mental Health Caucus, said in his opening remarks. “This committee is committed to addressing the difficult but necessary question of how we can stop the violently mentally ill from acting out and get them treatment before they harm themselves or others.”
Liza Long of Oregon, mother of a mentally ill 13-year-old son, wrote an essay entitled “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” that quickly drew nationwide attention on the night of the Dec. 14 shootings. Mr. Lanza was the lone shooter in the Newtown massacre.
“Too often, the only way loving parents can get access to much-needed services is by having their children charged with a crime,” Ms. Long said, adding that her son received treatment when he entered the juvenile justice system only to lose it when he left.
Laws dictating commitment to mental health facilities and privacy could be changed in a minute, said Dr. Michael Welner, so that control over a child’s treatment rests with his or her caregiver and not medical professionals.
“So let me get this straight: You as a family member are going to take the patient back, but you can’t have access to a doctor whose well-meaning efforts provide care,…have a nice life, good luck,” he said. “You, as legislators, can change that overnight.”
But Rep. Jim McDermott, Washington Democrat and a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, doesn’t see Congress acting on mental health anytime soon, citing the five years it took to pass the ban on so-called assault weapons after five students were killed at Cleveland Elementary in Stockton, Calif., in 1989.
“I don’t have any belief that something’s going to come out of here in 15 minutes, or a month, or anything like that,” Mr. McDermott said at a separate Politico Pro event at the Newseum. “I think this battle will be trench warfare.”
But author Pete Earley, who lied and said his son tried to kill him so that he could receive treatment, urged lawmakers at Mr. Murphy’s forum to tread cautiously.
In the wake of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, he said, Virginia “is now one of the leading states about reporting someone with a mental illness to various federal agencies — even people who have shown no danger, people who have just simply shown up and said, ‘Gee, I need help.’”
“When you make lists like this, you are creating stigma,” he continued. “You are saying, ‘These people are different. They’re dangerous. We have to have a list of them.’ You have to be very careful about that.”