Al Franken, Jim Ramstad: Improving care for mental illness

  • Article by: AL FRANKEN and JIM RAMSTAD
  • Updated: February 26, 2013 - 7:21 PM

Proposals in Congress address parity in treatment and in the justice system.

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Signs welcoming students from Sandy Hook Elementary School near the Chalk Hill Middle School in Monroe, Conn., Jan. 3, 2012. Twenty first graders and six faculty members were shot dead in December.

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In the wake of mass shootings in places like Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., many Americans have begun to ask important questions about the way we identify and treat mental illness.

The two of us have long tried to address this challenge — not just as a matter of public safety, but for the benefit of those who suffer from mental illness and for their families.

Jim, often working with Sen. Paul Wellstone, spent much of his career in Congress fighting to end discrimination against those suffering mental illness and addiction — a fight that culminated in the passage of the Wellstone-Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act of 2008, which expands access to behavioral health care.

Inspired by their example, Al has worked to further the cause. When he arrived in the Senate in 2009, he began to push for full implementation of the Wellstone-Domenici Act, eventually convincing the Obama administration to include it in the gun violence reduction strategy announced by the president last month.

Fully implementing mental-health parity will be a huge step forward. And we’re hopeful that the next steps will be passing two additional pieces of legislation Al has authored to improve mental-health care in schools and in our criminal-justice system.

Foremost, it is absolutely essential that we not stigmatize mental illness, especially in such a raw and emotional moment. The vast majority of those suffering from mental illness are no more violent than the general population. And the very small minority who could become violent are much less likely to do so if their illness is identified early and treated correctly.

The Mental Health in Schools Act is all about early detection and treatment of mental illness among children.

In Minnesota today, there are 780 students for every school counselor, although some communities are figuring out how to address the problem — in the Mounds View school district, that ratio has been brought down to 250 to 1, with social workers and psychologists in the mix.

Al’s bill would help train the people who interact with our kids every day — from bus drivers to principals — to recognize when a child is struggling. And it would make sure that schools have the resources to get at-risk kids the help they need.

This idea has enjoyed bipartisan support in the past — in fact, Democrat Ted Kennedy and Republican Mike Enzi used to cosponsor it together. We’re hopeful that it will enjoy bipartisan support again.

Al’s other bill addresses problems in our criminal-justice system.

For decades, we’ve essentially criminalized mental illness. People who should be getting help are instead being arrested and incarcerated. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek says that 30 percent of the people in Hennepin County jails should be in treatment for mental-health issues instead of being behind bars.

The Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act would help law enforcement and corrections officials deal with the mental-health issues they encounter daily — and help people with mental illness get the treatment they need before they get trapped in our criminal-justice system.

The bill funds mental-health courts that give people a chance at treatment, with special courts set up for veterans — many of whom are returning from war with traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder.

It also provides for intensive training for law enforcement officers who can then serve on crisis intervention teams, identifying people who are at risk. Finally, it helps jails screen inmates for untreated mental illness when they arrive — and helps them set up transition plans for when those inmates go back into our communities.

Rep. Richard Nugent, a Republican from Florida and a former sheriff, is Al’s partner on this bill. In the Senate, the bill has 22 cosponsors — eight of whom are Republicans. It’s a truly bipartisan effort, and one that has been endorsed by more than 200 organizations around the country, including groups representing veterans, mental-health advocates, and law enforcement and criminal-justice professionals.

After Sandy Hook, “mental health” has become a sort of two-word talking point, as the shortfalls in our system have sadly been brought to the forefront of national agenda once again. Let’s use this moment to address our national mental-health challenges with approaches that we know can improve the lives of so many.

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Al Franken represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate. Jim Ramstad formerly represented Minnesota’s Third District in the U.S. House.

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