Florida shooting shows the need for more mental health programs

Sadly, the shooting deaths of 17 students and adults at a Florida high school last week has thrust gun violence and mental health issues into the headlines and into the conversations around our family dinner tables. Our lawmakers, our local communities, and our families have all been touched by this issue in some way by the tragic loss of life.

It is clear that there are many facets to the violence plaguing our society. One of them is undoubtedly the treatment of mental health and mental illness.

It’s estimated that 1 in 5 adults suffer from a mental illness, and nearly 60 percent of these people haven’t received treatment in the past year. In a high school, many teens could be struggling with unaddressed mental health issues, since 1 in 5 young people ages 13-18 have a mental health condition.

Mental health care is a deeply personal issue to many of the women I met with while traveling nationwide with key members of Congress on the Women2Women Conversations Tour. During these tour stops, we spoke with women who were interested, engaged and committed to improving their communities.

In 2014, from California to Pennsylvania, we spoke with hundreds of women about a wide range of issues, many of which we expected to hear. But the one issue that was discussed at length during every stop was mental health. This should not have been a surprise to any of us – millions of us know family members, friends or loved ones who have struggled with mental health or have had a mental health crisis impact their lives.

During these discussions, we learned that a shortage of qualified providers and psychiatric beds, along with the need for insurers to treat mental illness as equally as physical illness, were at the top of everyone’s list of concerns. It was clear that the system needed reform. There was a crisis facing these communities and it was time for Congress to act.

That’s why in 2016, with the help of key Republican Main Street leaders like then-Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act.

In addition to record funding for medical research and treatment programs for opioid addiction, the Cures Act included the most significant piece of mental health legislation to be signed into law since President John F. Kennedy was in the White House.

Included in this landmark legislation are reforms that make mental health services more affordable for more families and provide new funding for research programs to develop best practices in mental health treatment. The law also includes key federal grants to increase the number of mental health providers nationwide and dramatically increases funding for suicide prevention programs.

For millions of families and care providers across the country, the passage of these reforms was a signal that Washington was not only listening, but delivering results for those who needed them most. But our work is far from over.

Less than a month ago, we commissioned a poll of 800 registered voters across eight key suburban districts from coast-to-coast. More than half of those we polled said they were “extremely worried” or “very worried” about access to mental health services, a clear sign that there is still much more to be done to connect those in need with care.

Part of this concern and worry can be traced to the lack of qualified mental health professionals available to many families in crisis. Continuing grant programs in the Cures Act is a start, but our country is still facing a major workforce shortage in this area.

In fact, there are 9,000 child and adolescent psychiatrists in the United States – but the current need is for more than 30,000. This deficit is affecting children who need this care.

According to a Washington Post report, it is estimated there is only one psychiatrist per 1,807 children who need mental health services in this country. More than half of the counties nationwide do not have a practicing psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker. These numbers are staggering and unacceptable.  

In addition to increasing the number of qualified mental health professionals to help students, parents, families, and those struggling with addiction or homelessness, we can also help those struggling by supporting and funding Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) programs.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar voiced emphatic support for ACT funding in a recent testimony. ACT builds a network of staff, services, and treatment plans to care for individuals in need.

Authorized under the Cures Act, this program is one of the most successful models of care for those with serious mental illness, providing direct, around-the-clock care for those who are prone to frequent hospitalization or homelessness. Those trained in ACT specialize in psychiatry, social work, nursing, substance abuse treatment and vocational rehabilitation.

We have to continue the drumbeat in Washington. Millions of families, loved ones and peers expect change – and deserve it. The passage of Cures in 2016 was a milestone more than 50 years in the making. We should not let another half century pass without further action to help those who need it most.  

Sarah Chamberlain is the founder of the Women2Women Conversations Tour and the president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership.