Back in the winter, when Congress was considering (however briefly) legislation reining in gun sales, some mental health measures were attached to the bill under discussion. The logic was that both initiatives were responses to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School—measures designed to help keep children safer.
While the gun control proposals on the table—extending background checks to sales at gun shows, or limiting the size of magazines for semi-automatic weapons—proved too controversial to get serious traction in the Senate, let alone the House, the mental health measures had widespread bipartisan support.
So it’s ironic that the defeat of gun control took the mental health bills off the agenda too.
“When we had the bill on the gun debate last month, I think the only amendment, that passed was the one on mental health,” Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri told a reporter at Missourinet last month, noting that the mental health provision cleared the Senate 95 to 2.
The measure he was referring to is called the Mental Health First Aid Act of 2013, and it authorizes the launch of a demonstration program to support mental health first aid trainings nationwide on how to identify, understand, and respond to the signs of mental illnesses. It was introduced by Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), and had eight other cosponsors from both parties, including Sen. Blunt.
That’s a bill that would have been especially meaningful for kids struggling with psychiatric issues, since it would support training for adults who work with young people—teachers, scout leaders, church leaders, etc.—to help them identify, understand, and respond to the signs of psychiatric problems.
There are a number of other bills that were also proposed in the wake of Sandy Hook that also claimed bipartisan support, including one that would boost funding for local mental health centers. We have to wonder why interest in these bills disappeared as soon as gun control was declared dead—and we’d like to see them resuscitated.
Whenever gun violence erupts, mental health initiatives are touted as the one thing everyone can agree on—supporters of the NRA and the Gabby Giffords and Brady campaigns alike. But for members of Congress they seem to gain traction only as an alternative to gun measures. We’d like to see that across-the-aisle support amount to more than a way for politicians to appear to be proactive in the wake of tragedy.