Controversy over Mental Health Law

Controversy over Mental Health Law

We’re all horrified by the rash of school shootings, but a possible positive outcome of the mounting concern over mass shootings is action in Congress for mental health. A proposed bill, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, is bringing up plenty of controversy.

The bill proposes the elimination of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and its replacement with an Assistant Secretary for Mental Health. Additional funding is requested, but the object of the bill is to shift funding from substance abuse programs and programs supporting broadly defined mental health and wellness to programs focusing on severe mental health disorders. The bill also proposes reorganization of all mental health programs and a number of changes in the language of current laws regarding mental health.

One of the main concerns with the act is that it weakens HIPAA privacy protection for students age 18 and older, making it easier for family members and caregivers to gain access to their health records. Psychiatric notes will not be shared, but diagnosis, medications, appointment times, and more will be accessible to family members.

Members of the mental healthcare community are also concerned about the language that’s framing the presentation of the bill. While the bill itself doesn’t focus on violence, the bill was a response to Sandy Hook, and school shootings are being used as talking points for the bill. The move away from substance abuse treatment and toward treatment of disorders like schizophrenia in the bill, connected with the use of violence headlines to lobby for the bill implies that mental illness is more of a predictor of violence than substance abuse.

An open letter from members of the mental healthcare community points this out and reminds readers that “Violence is not caused by mental illness, nor is mental illness sufficient to explain incidents of violence.” Making reductions in violence the focus for mental health care funding is unlikely to produce effective treatment either for mental health or for violence.

It’s good to see action being taken for mental health, and it’s good to see a demand for increased funding, but these concerns are valid.