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Hope for the mentally ill and families

EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON | 1/9/2017, 9:21 a.m.
The sight in many urban communities, Dallas for me, is painfully common – a person talking to him or herself ...
eddie bernice johnson

30th Congressional District of Texas

The sight in many urban communities, Dallas for me, is painfully common – a person talking to him or herself on a street corner, perhaps looking unkempt. Ordinary people drive and walk by, thinking nothing of the situation, calling the individual “crazy” or “nuts” under their breath. What the passersby don’t know is that this individual is possibly struggling with severe mental illness. The individual deserves compassion and treatment, not harsh judgment.

As the former chief psychiatric nurse at the VA Hospital in Dallas, I have witnessed the unintended consequences of the deinstitutionalization process. Many of my own patients diagnosed with severe mental illnesses were discharged with 30 days of prescription drugs and did not have stable housing. Once they ran out of their prescriptions, their conditions worsened, they suffered psychotic breaks, and many became homeless or incarcerated. Individuals with untreated psychiatric illness now make up one-third of the nation’s estimated homeless population that totals 600,000. In Texas, there are 35,000 incarcerated individuals with a severe mental illness, but only 4,500 psychiatric beds are available in all Texas hospitals combined.

Because of my firsthand experience, I know these numbers are more than statistics. I have worked for years in Congress to increase the number of beds available to treat individuals with serious mental illness by reforming Medicaid. In response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) approached me to work on a bill for mental health reform. We joined together, a former psychologist and a non-practicing registered psychiatric nurse, committed to contribute our firsthand expertise on this issue.

Our goal was to positively impact patients with severe mental illness. We sought to increase patient access to treatment, fund grant programs that were working and take a close look at programs that were not working, elevate mental health to a higher status within the federal government and promote inter-agency coordination, allow family members and caregivers to gain vital health and safety information, and increase the number of psychiatric beds available for treatment.

After years of working on the mental health issue, the House of Representatives passed the bipartisan Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act in July of 2016. Later, the Senate included portions of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act in the bipartisan and bicameral 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 7, 2016.

As a cosponsor of the original 21st Century Cures Act, I believe this bill has the opportunity to provide hope and healing to individuals and family members of those with a mental illness or battling an opioid addiction. And I am proud of the investment that will be made in cancer research, innovation and treatments. With the 21st Century Cures Act, I am hopeful that the individual on the street corner labeled as “crazy” will not only be able to receive the treatment he deserves, but also empathy and kindness from a stranger.

U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson is the ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the highest-ranking Texan on the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure.