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Taking steps to help those with mental illness

Like most of America, my heart breaks for the families who have endured the rash of mass shootings in this country. Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook and Blacksburg have all witnessed what we hope never comes into our communities. Each situation plays out exactly the same; tragedy at the hands of a madman.

That’s the one common denominator — mental health.

Each of the gunmen in these instances has suffered from some form of mental illness. Such illnesses afflict 11 million people who live in our communities, who are our friends and neighbors. They struggle with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression. Unfortunately, many of them go without the help they desperately need.

One of the reasons these folks can’t get help is because families don’t know how to manage the care of loved ones suffering from mental illness. In addition, society has often viewed the mentally ill with a stigma and lacked the resources to treat these patients. Sadly, they end up circulating through our criminal justice system where we treat them as criminals rather than patients.

Recently, the U.S. House passed the Helping Families with Mental Health Crisis Act, written by Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, who is the only practicing clinical psychologist in Congress. After Sandy Hook, Rep. Murphy held oversight hearings to look at how our nation treats the mentally ill. Each year, the federal government spends $130 billion on 122 different programs that deal with mental health.

The act streamlines these programs by creating an assistant secretary of mental health at the Department of Health and Human Services to study and recommend a national strategy for increasing the number of mental health professionals. We see this shortage in Nevada. According to the Guinn Center for Public Policy, 1.4 million people in our state live in an area designated as a Mental Health Professional Shortage Area. That includes our rural counties and 36 percent of Clark County.

Part of the bill Congress passed includes authorization of additional beds for patients who need short-term inpatient care. But it also includes options for rural communities to use telemedicine so pediatricians and primary care physicians in our rural communities that have a severe shortage of mental health professionals can communicate and partner with mental health professionals in other areas.

But it’s not enough to just treat people with mental illness. People with mental illness require follow up. And their caregivers, which often are family members, need to be included. But patient privacy regulations have prevented doctors from communicating with caregivers. This is particularly complicated for adult children living at home and receiving treatment under their parents’ health insurance.

The legislation requires a look into these practices to allow for communication between doctors and caregivers so that, together, they can manage therapies and treatments.

One of the most heartbreaking tragedies of all of these instances is the story of Adam Lanza, the gunman in Newtown, Conn. When Adam was 14 and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, his mother objected to the treatment prescribed by medical professionals because she insisted he needed a more challenging environment.

The bill puts into federal law early intervention and prevention programs called the Recovery After Initial Schizophrenia Episode, which is an evidence-based program that would have helped in Adam’s situation.

This bill Congress passed has been hailed by the likes of CNN, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal as the most comprehensive update to how we treat the mentally ill in decades. As a co-sponsor, I was pleased to see it passed with 422 bipartisan votes in Congress — which is a phenomenal accomplishment in today’s partisan Washington.

We’re long past the days where we ignore those with mental health and hope we can simply mange their problems. We must focus on treatment rather than how we respond to the next tragedy. My hope is that we can get this passed through the Senate and to the president’s desk so that he can sign it into law.

Cresent Hardy, a Republican, represents Nevada’s 4th Congressional District.

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