Greg Walden: Combating mental illness and drug addiction

By Greg Walden – U.S. Representative, Oregon
August 19, 2016

Across Oregon, I’ve talked with many families who are struggling with mental illness and drug addiction. These touch every segment of our communities, no matter where you live or what you look like. Tragically, they often carry with them a major stigma in society, and help is hard to find. Fortunately, Congress is working in a bipartisan way to help solve these problems and offer relief to those who need help.

The size of the crisis is staggering. Nearly 10 million Americans have a serious mental illness, and yet 40 percent of them aren’t receiving the treatment they need. In Oregon, more people are dying from drug overdoses than car accidents, with our state ranked consistently at the top for non-medical use of prescription pain relievers.

I’ve heard the heartbreaking personal stories from people who are most affected. At roundtables in Medford, Bend, and Hermiston, I spoke with parents whose children experienced homelessness, violence, and worse due to mental health issues or drug addiction. I’ve heard from law enforcement officials about how the default place for the mentally ill is often the local jail. Local physicians and caregivers told me how they severely lack the resources to effectively help patients suffering from addiction.

The good news is recently the U.S. House passed two key pieces of legislation: the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act to tackle this crisis head on.

The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act focuses on improving drug abuse treatments, addressing the underlying causes of addiction and helping those most at risk. Our bill expands access to care and prevention services in our communities, and establishes best practices that will help prevent lawful prescription use from spiraling into abuse. It gives new tools to law enforcement and prevention advocates to combat the epidemic of painkillers and heroin.

Importantly, we’re increasing first responders’ access to the potentially lifesaving anti-overdose drug naloxone. While some states, such as Oregon, have already broadened its availability, I believe the use of naloxone should be boosted around the country. With our bill, we can ensure better access to treatment, we can reduce the number of legally-proscribed pills that shouldn’t be out there and save lives.

Meanwhile, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act would be the first significant overhaul of the nation’s mental health system since the Kennedy administration. Our bill reforms the 112 federal programs that address mental health, ensuring they effectively coordinate and streamlining the bureaucracy currently creating serious barriers to care. It allows families to better work with health care professionals to care for loved ones, and helps fix the shortage of 100,000 psychiatric hospital beds in this country. Our bill also advances tele-psychiatry to help mentally ill patients in rural and underserved areas.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, those patients with severe mental illness who do receive care are 15 times less likely to commit, or be the victim of, violent acts than those who go untreated. While the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act works to make sure that those who are struggling do not go on to harm themselves or others.

Both of these bills addressing mental health and opioid abuse have passed the House with overwhelmingly bipartisan support. I’m proud to say that the drug addiction plan has also been passed by the Senate and signed into law by the President. And I hope that the Senate will soon pass the mental health reform bill so that we can deliver help quickly to those who need it.

Mental health and drug addiction issues do not discriminate based on age or gender or where you live or what political party you belong to. They impact our neighbors, our friends, and our families in Oregon and across the nation. For the sake of our children, our safety, and our society, we must fix this broken system that allows those who are suffering from mental illness and drug addiction to fall through the cracks.