WASHINGTON — A bipartisan bill to help school officials and the public identify symptoms of mental illness in students and others sailed through a Senate panel Wednesday.
The Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act passed without opposition in the Senate Education, Health, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Instead of authorizing new federal spending on mental-health programs, the bill would add language to existing federal programs, allowing states and localities to apply for grants that seek to train ordinary citizens and professionals to recognize those who may suffer from a mental illness and get them access to treatment. A committee spokeswoman said the Congressional Budget Office would score the bill as budget neutral.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) who cosponsored several provisions in the bill, suggested the legislation could have stopped recent shooting massacres if it had been the law of the land.
“As a country, we have experienced far too many tragedies that could have been prevented if there was better access to mental health services – especially among our kids,” Bennet said in a statement. “This bill will help us better understand the signals that someone may need help, and it will help connect those people with the services and treatments they need.”
One provision would allow schools with high percentages of poor children to use federal dollars to draw up individualized intervention plans to address the needs of at-risk students. Another would allow localities to apply for federal grants that seek to train the public about the symptoms of mental illness and steering those who may suffer from a mental illness to a local mental-health provider. Bennet’s staff said the latter provision was based on the Colorado Behavioral Health Council’s 12-hour training course for the public.
The Senate panel approved the bill amid a flurry of recent activity on federal efforts to combat untreated mental illness.
Tuesday, President Obama unveiled a $235 million-plan to create new programs for states and localities that seek to train school personnel and others to identify the symptoms of mental illness.
Wednesday, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Denver) and Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.) announced they sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget requesting it provide a list of all federal mental health research, prevention, and treatment programs, including the dollar figure each program receives.
Republicans and Democrats agree untreated mental illness contributed to the shooting massacre in Newton, Conn. last December. Gunman Adam Lanza, 20, suffered from a rare form of severe mental illness that was undiagnosed at the time of his rampage. Both Representatives Cory Gardner (R-Yuma) and Jared Polis (D-Boulder) have indicated Congress should direction more attention to changing the nation’s mental-health system than its gun laws.
Yet the two parties disagree about the proper measures to respond to those with severe mental illnesses who refuse treatment. Three gunmen — James Holmes, the 25-year-old alleged perpetrator of the movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colo. last July; Jared Lee Loughner, the 24-year-old convicted killer of a rampage in Tucson, Ariz. in January 2011, and Seung-Hui Cho, the 29-year-old murderer of the massacre at Virginia Tech in April 2007 — were ordered to seek psychiatric help consistently and refused. Severe mental illnesses include schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Republicans have hinted they would like to toughen involuntary commitment laws. Democrats have not registered their opinion.
“I think I would have to think about that answer,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. and a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said in an interview Wednesday.
The legislation passed Wednesday does not address the problem of those who refuse mental-health treatment.
Bennet did not make himself available to reporters after the hearing Wednesday at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, exiting through a back door.
A Senate committee spokeswoman said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had not told the panel when the full body would vote on the bill.