President Barack Obama wants to spend $500 million to increase access to mental health care and mental health information for conducting background checks as part of his immediate but unimplemented gun control executive actions announced on Jan. 5.
The initiative sounds good, which is what it’s designed to do. But, both Congressional Republicans and Democrats, as well as mental heath advocates, are concerned that by linking gun control to mental health care, Obama may inadvertently derail more meaningful measures—actual proposed laws—for the sake of “doing something” about gun violence in the lame-duck year of his two-term presidency.
Those seeking a comprehensive approach to mental-health legislation that emphasizes systemic changes to get help to people and families dealing with mental illness fear Obama’s fixation on his gun-control legacy could hurt their cause.
In November, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and 172 cosponsors—including dozens of Democrats—introduced HR 2646, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, would overhaul the system for treating mentally ill people.
“This bill is not a gun issue, it’s a mental-health issue,” Murphy said of his bill, which seeks to unite federal mental-health programs under a single office, expand treatment services and better enable commitment procedures to target the most severe cases. “I think it diminishes its importance to say this is the counterpoint to gun control. It’s not,” he told the Washington Post.
There are at least two versions of mental-health reform in the House and Senate, some more closely linked to gun control than others. But all of the proposals have been pulled into the stormy debate over gun control by association.
A bipartisan Senate effort cosponsored by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) is similar to Tim Murphy’s House bill, and another — Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) S.2002, the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act—was also picking up momentum before Obama’s executive orders, as immediate yet unimplemented as they are, muddied the waters.
Tim Murphy told the Washington Post that there is too little coordination in the federal government’s approach to addressing mental illness, adding that Obama’s proposed $500 million investment won’t solve that problem.
“That could be good,” he said. “But it depends on where it goes.”
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