WASHINGTON -- Advocates for the seriously mentally ill came to Washington today to help U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy make a push for his controversial bill that would make it easier for caregivers to access mental health records and to force the seriously mentally ill into involuntary treatment.
Mr. Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, invited a trio of advocates to the Capitol to help him make his case.
Meanwhile, Democrats who control the House are supporting an alternative bill by Ron Barber of Arizona. And Rep. Democrat Mike Thompson of California, who chairs the House Gun Prevention Task Force, is expected to unveil a third competing bill Friday.
On Thursday, Mr. Murphy’s supporters said his bill is most effective because it focuses on treating the most serious mental illnesses.
Unlike at a formal hearing last month, there was little push-back Thursday, only a platform for supporters who say the legislation could help prevent mass violence like last week’s shooting in Isla Vista, Calif. by forcing people into treatment before they become violent.
“What Isla Vista has blown the doors off of is the idea that someone who carries out a mass killing just snaps,” said psychiatrist Michael Welner of New York City.
He said parents and other family members often see clear signs before doctors or police officers who may be called in to intervene, as they were with Elliot Rodger before he went on a shooting rampage in California. But restrictions on involuntary treatment and privacy laws prevent families from intervening, Dr. Welner said.
Mr. Murphy wants to change that.
"Before there was Elliot Rodger, there was Adam Lanza in Newtown, Jared Loughner in Tucson, James Holmes in Aurora, Colo., and Aaron Alexis at the Washington Navy Yard,” the congressman said Thursday. “All had untreated or undertreated serious mental illness. … Many had parents who were pleading for more help.”
Mr. Welner said the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is “a wall that stands in the way in crisis situations.” It prevents providers and family members from sharing information, and is a particular problem in cases of patients who don’t believe they are ill.
Edward F. Kelley III, who also spoke Thursday, knows that all too well. He has bene struggling for 15 years to get help for his son who has rejected help even when he was living under a bridge, talking to himself, failing to recognize his parents and insisting he was a U.S. marshal, a CIA agent and a Gulf War veteran.
He said Mr. Murphy’s bill would help parents like him get their adult children treatment before they become homicidal or suicidal.
D.J. Jaffe, executive director of the Mental Illness Policy Org, said that involuntary treatment is humane.
"It’s like putting a fence by the edge of a cliff rather than an ambulance at the bottom,” he said.
Critics, though, say Mr. Murphy’s legislation would inhibit patients’ rights to privacy and restrict their ability to refuse treatment.
Some prefer Mr. Barber’s bill, which includes more funding for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration programs and increases mental health services for veterans, active duty military and school children.
Mr. Jaffe said the Barber bill spends too much on milder mental illnesses instead of targeting resources where they can do the most good.
“We have to prioritize federal spending. Send the most seriously ill to the head of the line rather than jails, shelters, prisons and morgues,” he said.