Opinion: Where Mental Health, Justice Reform Meet

The Atlantic Journal Constitution

By U.S. Representative Doug Collins (R-GA)

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Congressman Fred Upton’s 21st Century Cures Act, which has been rightly hailed as a game-changer for medical innovation and patient empowerment. What is less well known, but equally pioneering, is the bill’s approach to mental health reform.

My friend, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., authored the Helping Families in Mental Crisis Act, a major piece of the bill’s efforts to comprehensively improve mental health treatment for the first time in half a century. Mr. Murphy’s legislation will improve treatment by ensuring communication among patients, their families, and medical providers while also establishing a policy lab to drive evidence-based grant-making.

These measures represent tangible steps forward in medical and patient mental health care arenas. Yet today’s mental health crisis extends well beyond the borders of the medical community.

Each year, more than two million mentally ill individuals become residents of our jails, effectively charging correctional officers and court systems with managing mental illness on an epic scale.

What I’ve seen in my more than 10 years as a legislator is that epic challenges bend only to practical solutions. Since the mental health crisis currently obligates law enforcement, judges, neighbors, taxpayers, and mental health patients themselves to bear the burden of a broken system, any substantive reform has to offer relief across these dimensions.
To that end, the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act — which has been incorporated into 21st Century Cures — leverages the expertise of both law enforcement and medical professionals on the ground.

I introduced that legislation, in part, as a result of spending time in locals jails and Atlanta’s U.S. Penitentiary, which introduced me to different pieces of this mental health puzzle. I began my visits as part of a commitment to criminal justice reform and learned anew that we’ve locked up — under largely the same terms and conditions — some people who are scary and some people who are sick. The result is that the sick rarely become less ill, but can become more menacing in the absence of treatments that address the mental conditions underlying their actions.

The first step toward lowering recidivism rates and increasing public safety, then, is distinguishing between willful criminals and those who are sick. Georgia has been a leader in utilizing mental health courts and crisis intervention teams, as well as in customized law enforcement training, which this legislation extends to federal officers and reaffirms for state and local law enforcement. Our officers are often the first to engage mental health sufferers and, with effective training, can navigate these interactions with wisdom while guiding individuals with mental health challenges to appropriate treatment programs.

The mental health reform in Cures also ensures that local officials who are addressing the mental health epidemic at the community level have the agency to develop solutions for their contexts. I’ve taken insight from our local correctional contexts to Washington and want to continue that trend.

Still, it would be inaccurate to imply that the inspiration and support for this mental health legislation is limited to our state or region. More than 100 organizations have joined the American Psychological Association, National Association of Social Workers, and the National Association of Police Organizations in recognizing that this legislation is a boon for the mental health system and public safety at a time when 45 percent to 64 percent of people in correctional facilities across the country show symptoms of a mental health disorder.

This landmark legislation makes sense in terms of what I call the M&Ms — morality and money — by moving to ensure that people with mental health conditions receive appropriate care and that taxpayer dollars flow to effective rehabilitative and correctional efforts. At the intersection of mental health and criminal justice reform, the House of Representatives has made a path that has prudent, practical, and compassionate outcomes for both causes, and I look forward to the Senate’s joining us in making the Cures Act into 21st-century law.