Psychologist Congressman: Government 'Partially to Blame' for Tragedies Linked to Mental Illness

tim murphy

A Pennsylvania Republican congressman with decades of psychology experience said today the federal government “was really partially to blame” for many recent tragedies from mass shootings to the opioid epidemic because of stale mental health programs.

Rep. Tim Murphy won approval this week for his Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, which passed 94-5 in the 21st Century Cures health reform package.

Murphy began his mental-health reform efforts in earnest after the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“We are ending the era of stigma surrounding mental illness and focusing on delivering treatment before tragedy. By bringing research, treatments and cures into the 21st Century, we are finally breaking down the wall between physical health and mental health,” Murphy said Wednesday, adding it was Sandy Hook “that motivated my relentless effort to fix the patchwork of antiquated programs and ineffective policies to get care to those in psychiatric crisis.”

Murphy said $130 billion has been poured into “a system that has done little but watch the rates of homelessness, incarceration, suicide and drug overdose deaths soar.”

He credited Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), a psychiatric nurse by trade, for “championing the cause that someone in crisis should get treatment in a hospital and not locked up in a jail cell — it is largely due to her efforts that we made it to the finish line.”

The bill increases training for law enforcement and corrections officers to recognize mental crises, provides extra support for pediatric mental health professionals, extends suicide prevention programs in schools, integrates mental and healthcare Medicaid billing, increases government reporting requirements on mental health issues, creates a new assistant secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use (that person must be a mental health professional), and more.

Murphy told CNN this morning that a congressional investigation found that there are “112 federal agencies out there that don’t work together that are supposed to address issues of mental health, mental illness, and they don’t do it very well.”

“We are funding some pretty silly programs like how to make a fruit smoothie or interpretive dance or dealing with your anger, and not dealing with serious mental illness,” he said.

“Our bill changes that. It starts at the top — a new office — the assistant secretary of Mental Health and Substance Abuse to get our government moving forward on this. Change the grant programs to make them evidenced-based. Making sure we have more psychiatric beds to treat people instead of dumping on the street or leaving them in emergency rooms or sending them to jail. More provider psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers because half the counties in America, you can’t even get help because it’s not there.”

Murphy included language in the bill addressing HIPAA laws that protect patient privacy.

“A physician can ask a family, ‘tell me what I need to know.’ Some doctors think they can’t do that. They really can, so we’re going to push towards that,” the congressman explained. “Part, I want to push more. We’ve got it somewhat but not fully addressed, and that’s the physician’s ability to tell a family some selected information. Not describing therapy notes, not breaching a person’s privacy, but 75 percent of people with a serious mental illness also have a chronic illness — diabetes, heart disease, lung disease. And it wouldn’t it be great if a physician could at least say, Mr. Smith, your son, I can’t tell you everything we do but he needs to see an endocrinologist, he needs to see an oncologist. Can you make sure that happens?”

A couple years after being elected to Congress, Murphy’s book Overcoming Passive-Aggression was published.

“It is an awful way to communicate,” Murphy said today, noting it happens in Congress as well. “We have lost our ability to communicate directly to handle emotional and intellectual conversations with each other. We tweet, we Facebook post, we put digs and nastiness indirectly instead of looking someone in the eye. And it can bring down a company, it can destroy a marriage, it can hurt a relationship, and we need to overcome that.”