CHN: Expanded Mental Health Services May be Included in Gun Legislation
When President Obama spoke about the grieving families seeking legislation to curb gun violence in his State of the Union address, his message was: “they deserve a simple vote.” On April 11, the Senate took the first step with a bipartisan 68-31 vote to cut off debate after up to 30 hours. Unlike previous tragedies, in which initial public revulsion against gun violence did not translate into legislation further regulating guns, many of the parents of the six-year-olds killed at Newtown have spoken out publicly and have kept the issue alive.
The bill, the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013 (S. 649), is sponsored by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), expands the national system of background checks for gun purchases, toughens penalties for buying guns on behalf of others who would not be eligible to buy them, and boosts authorized funding for school safety programs.
Many amendments will be offered, including some that would have the effect of loosening, not tightening, the rules around gun purchases. But in addition to decisions about gun purchases, the Senate may take up legislation to improve mental health services, especially in schools, in the hope of preventing violence.
One bill to improve mental health services was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on April 11. The bill, introduced by committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN), is called the Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act (S. 689). It would encourage the development of school-wide mental health programs and allow grant funding to promote partnerships between schools and clinical mental health services. The bill also provides suicide prevention and mental health awareness training, for early intervention to help students with mental health or substance abuse problems. In addition, there would be GAO reports commissioned to examine access to mental health and substance abuse treatment, to look at mental health specifically for children, and to assess whether federal regulations or laws are obstacles to states’ and local communities’ efforts to provide mental health services.
The Harkin-Alexander bill is prominently mentioned as one likely to be added to the package of gun-related provisions headed for votes in the Senate. Other mental health pieces are being introduced: Senator Stabenow (D-MI) has sponsored the Excellence in Mental Health Act (S. 264), which would provide for federal certification of community behavioral health centers and make them eligible for Medicaid funding.
Advocates for improved mental health services want to see greater access to services, without demonizing the mentally ill. Many advocates see these bills as important expansions, and hope that additional funding will be appropriated so that the new services can actually be implemented.