Mental Health Ought to Matter More Than Uniforms

As part of its bid to become the least productive United States legislature ever, the current 113th Congress is managing to hold up yet another worthy piece of bipartisan legislation. Senate Bill 162, introduced by Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) as the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act, would authorize grants to "improve the treatment of mentally ill individuals in the criminal justice system" within state, local and tribal governments.

This could include improved mental health screening and treatment for veterans and inmates, as well as more mental health courts, greater law enforcement training and more crisis intervention teams specially trained to deal with psychiatric emergencies. The bill provides for $40 million in grants per year for five years, making its annual cost $10 million short of the amount set aside for new Transportation Security Administration uniforms a week before the sequester took effect.

Those who appear to oppose Franken's bill -- most notably Senators Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) at the moment -- seem to be under the delusion that states can manage mental health concerns well enough on their own. Not so.

Take my own state of North Carolina, notorious for its steadfast rejection of federal funding for vital social programs like Medicaid. In 2012, one of our largest state psychiatric institutions, named for the tireless nineteenth-century civil rights leader who inspired its construction, closed its doors. Worse still, Dorothea Dix Hospital closed despite the fact that in 2010, we already had twice as many patients resorting to expensive and inefficient emergency room visits for mental healthcare than the national average.

Try telling the folks at my local mental health support group that our state doesn't need more funding for screening or crisis intervention teams or mental health courts, and I assure you, that dog won't hunt.

And North Carolina isn't the only state hurting. According to Ron Honberg of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, "More than $4 billion was cut just in state funding during the recession. Clearly we need a very, very significant infusion of new resources."

Furthermore, efforts aimed at veterans and inmates with mental illness are particularly important.

Despite a significant expansion in mental health providers and services at Veterans Administration medical centers across the country and notwithstanding estimates showing that, on average, 22 veterans commit suicide daily, thousands of veterans still wait weeks to receive requested mental health treatment.

The situation for mentally ill inmates, often charged with non-violent offenses that warrant treatment over incarceration, is direr still. Prisoners with mental health issues are shamefully overrepresented in our prison system. According to one 2006 study by the Bureau of Justice and Statistics, they comprised more than half of all inmates in jails and prisons. Effectively treating and connecting mentally ill prisoners with community-based mental health facilities after their release could dramatically reduce our overall prison population, which ought to be a high priority in a country holding the embarrassing and costly distinction of imprisoning more of its citizens than any other on the planet.

Far too many state and local governments fail chronically and miserably at addressing the mental health concerns of their citizens -- particularly veterans and inmates. The federal government needs to consider the serious consequences of underestimating the mental health crises facing our military and prison system today, and step it up. The Justice and Mental Health Collaboration bill provides an opportunity to do exactly that, and those legislators standing in opposition would serve their country best by getting out of the way.