Pope Francis has been called “the people’s pontiff,” so it should come as no surprise that during his U.S. visit, he would want to meet some of our most vulnerable citizens. Before arriving in Philadelphia, he lunched with 300 of Washington D.C.’s homeless outside St. Patrick’s Church. In Philadelphia, more than 100 inmates of Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) greeted the pope.

But these people are not just homeless and incarcerated. Many suffer from serious mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. Today, with the demise of psychiatric asylums, approximately 30% of homeless people1 and 20% of people in prison2 suffer serious mental illness. Many are victims of abuse. Some need periodic hospital care. A small proportion will never recover. Others suffering from hallucinations, delusions, and cognitive impairments do not even realize they are sick.

America’s mental health system is in shambles. But it doesn’t have to be this way. A bill introduced in Congress last June, H.R. 2646 “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015,” would overhaul the miserable way people with serious mental illness are treated. This bill picks up where President Kennedy’s reforms left off. It fixes the nation’s broken mental health system by focusing programs and resources on psychiatric care for patients and families most in need of services.

I’m sure that, with his concern for vulnerable people Pope Francis would be quick to get behind H.R. 2646 because it:

  • Provides funding for Assisted Outpatient Treatment, ensuring that the small, but important, group of people who are the most seriously ill get the care they need; 
  • Allows people who cannot live safely in the community to receive care in protected environments;
  • Focuses on people with the most serious of mental illnesses rather than on the worried well; and
  • Empowers families of people with serious mental illness to become part of the care team.

H.R. 2646 keeps people with SMI from being marginalized and seeks to include them in society.

H.R. 2646 has the support of many professional organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems. It has the backing of grassroots organizations including National Alliance for Mental Illness and Mental Health America. The bill has bipartisan support with 118 co-sponsors.

To be sure, there are those who oppose or seek to water-down H.R. 2646.

Some claim that the bill infringes on civil rights. They argue that, if people choose to refuse treatment or take their own lives, they should be allowed to do so, citing the right to self-determination. The ludicrousness of this position is evident to families like mine. My 23-year old daughter Sophie, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, does not understand how ill she is. She’s lived on the streets. She’s been jailed. She’s suffered addiction to drugs. Sophie is a prisoner of her illness. Although treatments exist that would enable Sophie to function, she refuses them. There is absolutely nothing my husband or I can do to help her. This cannot possibly be the civil liberty our Founding Fathers sought to protect.  Sophie’s lack of awareness of her illness means she is incapable of legitimate self-determination.

Others who oppose H.R. 2646 claim we can’t afford the costs of mental health reform. Yet there is solid evidence that the cost of treatment for people with serious mental illness is far less than the costs of incarceration and hospitalization.3-5 Even without tallying the costs of pain and suffering experienced by people with SMI and their families, the reality is that it is cost effective for society to address the needs of people with serious mental illness.

Whether Pope Francis’ visit is a pastoral one or a political one, his messages of inclusiveness and humanity must be heeded.  It’s long past time to demand that our federal legislators pay attention to the needs of citizens with serious mental illness. 

  1. http://mentalillnesspolicy.org/consequences/homeless-mentally-ill.html
  2. http://mentalillnesspolicy.org/NGRI/jails-vs-hospitals.html
  3. http://mentalillnesspolicy.org/kendras-law/research/2013-duke-aot-cost-s...
  4. http://mentalillnesspolicy.org/states/california/llsavings.pdf
  5. http://mentalillnesspolicy.org/consequences/cost-legal-encounters.html

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