Since the Connecticut shooting late last year that killed 27 people, the question facing Capitol Hill has been what to do about guns. But a bipartisan group of lawmakers Thursday recalibrated the conversation around another piece of the equation: mental health.
And legislators seem more willing to back measures to expand mental healthcare than get behind new gun laws that restrict ownership of high-capacity magazines or some semi-automatic weapons.
Republican Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Susan Collins of Maine introduced a mental healthcare expansion program alongside Democratic Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and Barbara Boxer of California.
"Ensuring that those suffering from mental illness have access to the healthcare and support they need is important for many reasons," Leahy said. "One reason is to help prevent debilitating mental and behavioral health problems, suicide, and violent acts like we saw at an elementary school in Connecticut."
It's unclear, however, whether the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza suffered from any diagnosed mental illness.
The issue of mental health has attracted Hollywood attention. David O. Russell, the Oscar-nominated director of Silver Linings Playbook, a film about a young man with bipolar disorder, also endorsed the legislation Thursday.
The Excellence in Mental Health Act would expand access to mental healthcare clinics and help an estimated 1.5 million more individuals access treatment every year. Stabenow's office estimates the bill will cost $1.4 billion over 10 years.
The bill would require federally qualified community behavioral health centers to enhance their mental healthcare, including offering 24-hour emergency services to its clients and incorporating more care for families of the mentally ill. And the legislation will fund updates for some of the country's 2,000 mental health centers and build a series of new clinics.
According to legislators who support the bill, mental health clinics provide care to more than 8 million people a year, and are expected to help roughly 200,000 returning military veterans. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates less than one-third of adults with a mental illness get treatment for their illness in a year.
Lawmakers said the bill is a way to ensure that people who are struggling with mental illness get the services they need.
"Too often the stigma of mental illness prevents individuals from seeking diagnosis and treatment," Reed said. "Thankfully, we are making strides in meeting this challenge, but we must ensure those who need treatment have access to it."