To borrow a phrase from Emma Gonzalez, I call BS.
By now, you are likely aware that there was another school shooting today; this one in Santa Fe, Texas. Early reports indicate at least ten people have been confirmed dead. The massacre today marks the 22nd school shooting this year.
Sifting through my shock and dismay, I can't help but think back to all of the grandstanding over the past few years by members of Congress in support of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 2646), which passed as part of the 21st Century Cures Act in 2016. The most ardent supporters of H.R. 2646 spoke feverishly about how if it passed there would be no more mass shootings. What a joke that statement was then, and what a joke it is now. Consider this pronouncement from former Congressman Tim Murphy, who led the charge to get H.R. 2646 passed:
How many more people will die before Congress takes action? We are clearly dealing with the aftermath of a failed mental health system,” said Murphy. August 27, 2015, Washington Times
or this statement:
"[This bill] could prevent another mass murder like the one in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut." Congressman Tim Murphy, The Daily Signal on December 4th, 2015
or these headlines ( of many):
- Mental health bill could prevent mass shootings, Sun Sentinel, August 24, 2015
- How fixing America’s mental health system might catch future mass shooters, Vox, December 4, 2015
The notion of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (also known as the Murphy Bill) as a cure-all to mass murder was folly then and is folly now. But Murphy and his cronies used the sensational headlines and soundbites blurring the lines between guns, violence and mental illness and it worked!
The passage of the bill brought significant changes to SAMHSA with the addition of an Assistant Secretary, a Mental Health Policy Lab, and an Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee (click here, here, here, here and here for the details). Okay, if you have the stamina to click through all of the links in the last sentence, you will see that this is where things get dangerous, and why it is essential for children's mental health advocates to, as Emma Gonzalez so succinctly put it, call BS.
A primary argument behind the Murphy Bill was that SAMHSA had strayed from focusing on the most severely mentally ill and that it needed to get back to that. The elixir posed by the proponents of the Murphy bill was to increase Assisted Outpatient Treatment, make more psychiatric beds available, and focus more closely on programs that serve the most seriously mentally ill. Sure, there were many other elements in the bill that was passed, but these were the driving focus areas. And guess what? Their narrow-focused campaign worked. The tragedy was that advocates know full well that AOT programs, for example, only work well when they are designed as part of a comprehensive array of services and supports. It's the "comprehensive array" part of the equation the Congress didn't seem to want to address, probably because it didn't fit into a neat soundbite. More worrisome, a look at the direction SAMHSA is headed makes me concerned that their leadership holds the same view. Early intervention? Well, sure, it's important, but let's stay focused on what to do after someone reaches a state of severe mental illness. Heaven forbid we double our efforts to promote efforts in early childhood that have been shown to prevent mental illness later in life.
Hey SAMHSA, what do you say you balance things out and spend as much attention on prevention and early intervention efforts as you do on programs focused on young adults and older already identified with a serious mental illness?
We have got to work in both directions if we are going to make life better for those with mental health challenges. We sure aren't going to solve the mental health challenge with the simplistic solutions proposed by proponents of the Murphy bill a few short years ago. Every time there is a school shooting I am reminded of the sales job that was done on the American public with the passage of the mental health bill. The sad part is that it didn't have to be that way.
Stay focused Network faithful. Continue to call for a comprehensive approach to meeting the needs of individuals with serious mental health challenges that adheres to the values and principles of a system of care approach.
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President & CEO
Children's Mental Health Network