Fiscal Cliff Could Cut Programs Crucial for Mentally Ill

Automatic budget cuts would slash programs that are critically important for the mentally ill.

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The killing of 27 people in Newtown, Conn., has focused the nation's conversation on the issue of gun control. Legislators have announced they will revisit the federal ban on assault weapons which expired in 2004, while also looking to prohibit high-capacity magazines and to close loopholes that allow buyers to purchase firearms at gun shows without a background check.

However, mental health experts say there is something Congress must do immediately to keep the country safe and it has nothing to do with gun control–avoid the fiscal cliff.

The federal government has already cut public mental health services in the U.S. to the tune of $4 billion over the past five years and closed 4,000 psychiatric beds since 2008.

"Maybe that would be OK if we had replaced them with community services," says Ron Honberg, the national director for policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Health. "When you close hospitals and do nothing for the patients leaving them, it is a prescription for disaster.

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And if Congress can't strike a deal with the White House before January 1, those existing deep cuts to special education, mental health research, substance abuse counseling and housing grants to the mentally disabled could be slashed even deeper.

The National Alliance for Mental Illness estimates that in January, the automatic budget cuts would lead to 8 percent cuts across the board.

"No one wants to hear 'we need more money,' but we have decimated the mental health system in this country over the past five years, and we cannot afford to keep doing that." Honberg says.

The National Institute of Mental Health finds that of all the Americans suffering from a serious mental illness, fewer than half reach out for treatment. The study found, by the time they get help, it may be too late.

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While authorities have yet to determine whether Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza suffered from any mental illness, despite reports he may have suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, experts agree federal programs have helped keep potentially violent individuals from hurting themselves and others.

Mental health experts also agree that cuts to Medicaid, which may be part of a grand bargain to avoid the fiscal cliff, could have major consequences for the mentally ill.

Nearly 50 percent of all public mental health services are funded through Medicaid.

Of course, handling the fiscal cliff is just a start. There already is legislation stalled in Congress that could strengthen the country's mental health system.

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"We need far better community awareness and education," Honberg says. "If someone falls down in the middle of the street with a heart attack, we run toward them. If someone is suffering from a mental illness we run away from them."

Hailing from the conservative state of Alaska, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich has stayed mute on gun control, but has been an outspoken advocate of helping the mentally ill.

"After multiple tragedies across the country, there is no doubt that we must do more to keep our families and communities safe, and that is why I believe we must start with the ever-pressing issue of mental health services in this country" Begich says.

Begich has already introduced a bill to bolster mental health services on college campuses, but he says he will reintroduce the bill in the 113th Congress and is optimistic it might gain more traction in a post-Sandy Hook era.

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Lauren Fox is a political reporter for U.S. News & World Report. She can be reached at lfox@usnews.com or you can follow her on Twitter @foxreports.