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The House Just Passed the Most Important Mental Health Bill in Decades

The House Just Passed the Most Important Mental Health Bill in Decades

The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2016 is one of the biggest mental health reform bills since 1963, and it passed in a near-unanimous vote.

Though the conversation surrounding mental health issues is improving every day, stigmas persist and resources for the mentally ill are seriously limited. That's why the news last week that the House of Representatives almost unanimously passed the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2016 could lead to one of the most significant mental health reforms in decades. The bill, which passed 422-2 last week, addresses a number of problems in the U.S. mental health care system, including the scarcity of hospital beds and the lack of medical professionals available to treat mental health patients.

The bill was introduced by Republican Congressman Tim Murphy following the Sandy Hook shootings as a way to address the U.S.’s failings when dealing with mental health issues. Instead of framing his legislation as a matter of public safety (and viewing mentally ill Americans as dangerous or threatening—which they rarely, rarely are), Murphy saw his bill as a matter of public health (providing resources to a group who needs them). The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act will increase the amount of hospital beds available for mental health patients, establish a grant program for individuals with severe mental illness, and create an interdepartmental committee set to focus on serious mental illness.

Another major thing the act does is clarify that health care providers wouldn’t be violating HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws for sharing certain information with family members of mental health patients. This significant reinterpretation of HIPAA would allow a parent to obtain information about their mentally ill child’s medical records after that child turned 18, for example. The bill will also create a new federal position: the assistant secretary of mental health and substance use disorders.

Now that the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act has passed the House, two U.S. senators who co-authored the similar Mental Health Reform Act are pushing Senate to vote on their bill. Though they recognized the House’s bill “isn’t perfect,” they said, “The fact that it passed overwhelmingly is proof that there’s broad, bipartisan support for fixing our broken mental health system.” There’s no word yet on when or whether that will happen.

An estimated 43.6 million American adults (18 and older) had some kind of mental illness in 2014, according to the National Institutes of Health. Of this group, an estimated 9.8 million had a serious mental illness (one severe enough to impair day-to-day life). These statistics don’t account for homeless Americans or people living in facilities, institutions, and shelters, however. Unfortunately, only a fraction of adults living with mental illnesses seek treatment (the number vacillates between 13.4 percent and 58.7 percent depending on the study and the group in question), but the House is hopeful that the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act will help address this issue. “This historic vote closes a tragic chapter in our nation’s treatment of serious mental illness and welcomes a new dawn of help and hope,” Tim Murphy, the congressman behind the House bill said in a statement. “We are ending the era of stigma. Mental illness is no longer a joke, considered a moral defect and a reason to throw people in jail.”

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