A tale of two letters: Members of Congress weigh in on the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015

October 23, 2015

Members of Congress sent two important letters regarding the Helping All Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015 (H.R. 2646) to House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton and Ranking Member Frank Pallone this week – one on Thursday and one on Friday. I am including the letters at the end of this post and encourage you to read them. The letters will give you a sense of the position these members of Congress are currently taking on H.R. 2646.

The first letter encourages the markup of H.R. 2646, presenting the bill, apparently in its current form, as ready to go. The second letter, from a different group of congressional representatives, identifies many concerns about specific items in H.R. 2646, that, if enacted, would do more harm than good.

As always, read the letters and use the information to help guide your decision-making, but before you leave this post, I want to point out an interesting difference in the approach taken in the two letters, specifically the first paragraph of each. The first paragraph sets the tone for the rest of the message in each letter. And, as we all know, the conversation around H.R. 2646 is dominated by messaging. Let’s take a look at both paragraphs.

  • Letter #1 – H.R. 2646 is good to go
    Once again our nation has been struck by gun violence. When mass shooters strike there seems to always be a severe mental health issue associated with the criminal engaging in such horrific acts. In fact, research has found that there is a direct link between serious mental illness and violence. By making mental health treatment a priority in America, we can better address these mass shooting situations by preventing them beforehand.

  • Letter #2 – H.R. 2646 needs more work
    We write to you as Members of the Committee who are deeply concerned with our nation’s broken mental health system. For far too long, mental health and mental illness have been left in the shadows, and we believe the only way we can fight stigma, improve access to services and treatments, and bring mental health up to parity with physical health is to start treating the brain as a part of the body. Our policies and systems need to reflect the fact that mental illness is a disease and that if the right services, supports, and treatments are available, people can and do recover.

Letter #1 – H.R. 2646 is good to go
The paragraph from the first letter hits the reader right in the gut, making a correlation between guns, violence and mental illness. The tone of this paragraph follows the formula being used in the weekly roll-out of editorials, newspaper endorsements, and various mental health blogs supporting H.R. 2646, that invariably invoke the all too frequent horrific mass shootings, gun violence, and mental illness.

The simple message of “Pass this bill and we can prevent mass shootings” has an incredibly strong general public appeal. The message is straightforward and suggests a direct answer to a complicated question. The more subtle message infused in the first paragraph comes in the form of a quiet whisper that grows louder on the heels of each new tragedy – Pass this bill and this type of horror will never happen again.

Now, of course, we know that the lock, stock, and barrel passage of H.R. 2646 would in no way prevent mass shootings. But in politics, that doesn’t seem to matter. The messaging matters. And the messaging being used to promote full-scale passage of this bill is consistently on-point. Do you hear the whisper? Guns. Violence. Mental illness. Pass H.R. 2646 and you will be safe.

Letter #2 – H.R. 2646 needs more work
The tone of the first paragraph from letter #2 is significantly different from letter #1. The tone of this paragraph does not include the elements of fear in the first letter. There is a much more holistic feel to the paragraph, which is much more consistent with the reality that I hear expressed by mental health providers in communities across the nation. For me, the most important part of the paragraph is the last sentence:

  • Our policies and systems need to reflect the fact that mental illness is a disease and that if the right services, supports, and treatments are available, people can and do recover.

With letter #2, there is an upfront recognition of the need for a comprehensive array of services and supports, while also honoring the concept of recovery.

However, letter #2 faces the daunting challenge of not proposing a simple solution. Complicated solutions, no matter how on-target they may be with the realities of providing mental health services at the local level, tend not to be as embraced by the general public as something that is simple and straightforward.

Both letters raise important questions for children’s mental health advocates
Are we, as children’s mental health advocates, going to allow ourselves to be bullied and steamrolled into blindly accepting a bill that presents itself in such a way that preys on our deepest darkest fears and terrors of a lack of safety?

Or, are we going to question our politicians, compare their assertions with the realities we, collectively, know all to well at the local level?

The authors of the second letter that raise concerns about H.R. 2646 are right about a most fundamental truth – mental health reform is about a broad spectrum of approaches that honor each other and recognize the importance of their inter-connectedness.

Mental health reform is about seeking answers through collaboration, not domination. There are many parts of H.R. 2646 that could be helpful to improving mental health services in America. But there are equally many parts of the bill that need a serious rewrite. Let’s not be hijacked by a brusque attempt to use fear-mongering to push a bill through without addressing its major flaws.

I vote for letter #2.

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Scott Bryant-Comstock
President & CEO
Children’s Mental Health Network

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