Mental Health Reform: The Government’s Broken Promise

Victoria Vale

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December of 2012 was a tragedy closely  followed by heartfelt promises of reform. After the lone twenty-year-old shooter, a man with several untreated mental illnesses, killed these twenty students and six adults in the school with a gun stolen from his mother, many demanded mental health reform by the government, including more funding and programs to prevent such events from occurring again. The government acknowledged its concern for the issue, and Obama promised to make gun control and mental health two key topics of his second term. Political leaders across the country were eager to voice their compassion for the issue, and many made promises for progressing our treatment systems.

In 2013, it seemed that federal and state governments were living up to the promises they had made. After three straight years of mental health care cuts, thirty-seven states and D.C. increased funding for the cause. The same positive steps, however, did not last into 2014. The State Mental Health Legislation report for 2014 showed that, though twenty-seven states and D.C. continued to increase funding into the new year, the total was significantly lower than in 2013. Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, Michigan, and Rhode Island all increased mental health spending in 2013, but then cut it back by millions in 2014.The report offered that the large monetary increases the year before were likely a direct result of the heightened public awareness of the importance of mental health treatment caused by the Sandy Hook shooting. In total, the report stated, the increases made to mental health funding were not enough to make up for the extreme cuts made from 2009 to 2012—among those cuts $4.35 billion and over 3,000 psychiatric beds.

Now, three years after the Sandy Hook shooting restarted demand for mental health treatment reform, even fewer states have fulfilled the promises they made in 2012. As reported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), in 2015 only twenty-three states increased mental health funding, compared to the thirty-six states that did so in 2013. Only eleven of those states have raised their mental health funding for each of the three years, with Minnesota and Virginia* the role models of that group. The other states have either kept their funding consistent or have made cuts, calling attention to, as stated by a NAMI representative, the “great deal of rhetoric in recent years about the broken mental health system in America and the need to invest in services that work in helping people living with mental illness to recover and reach their full potentials,” and the failure of those politicians to follow through on those statements. That same representative also faulted national lawmakers, calling out Congress as having been largely absent on the mental health topic since it promised to do so much in 2013.

With the 2016 presidential election fast approaching and the candidates of both parties making their cases, mental health is one of the topics that has been brought up in debate. Just recently in a January Republican debate, the question of more gun control was shot down by Jeb Bush and Donald Trump, who both insisted that the solution to stopping gun violence is not to get rid of guns, but to improve the country’s mental health systems to prevent troubled people from resorting to violence. It will be interesting to see public reaction to these proposals considering the mostly-broken promises on the mental health topic already made by the government in three years ago.
*Virginia increased its efforts to improve mental health treatment following the November 2013 attack on a Virginia Senator by his own son, who then fatally shot himself. Authorities had been unable to find the twenty-four year old a psychiatric bed due to the lack of funding and treatment locations for mental illness patients in Virginia. Since then, Virginia law has strengthened its inpatient psychiatric bed tracking system, which requires all treatment centers to report on their bed availability every eight hours to maximize immediate aid for those who need it.