REMARKS [AS PREPARED]: NATIONAL ALLIANCE FOR THE MENTALLY ILL - OHIO LEGISLATOR OF THE YEAR AWARD
Thank you very much, Terry, and thank you Director Hogan and Board President Snyder. I am truly humbled by this award and by your very kind words.
Really, though, it is all of you here today who deserve this recognition. Each of you is making a difference in the lives of so many. Thank you for your dedication and for your commitment to helping those who suffer from brain disorders and helping their families. It is your passion, and it is your compassion that changes lives each and every day.
Let me also commend NAMI on your recent publication -- "A Report on America's Health Care System for Serious Mental Illness." This is a very important report card -- and I'm not just saying that because Ohio has one of the highest grades! The report really holds Ohio up as an example for this country in mental health service delivery. As the report states, "In the field of mental health, as goes Ohio, so goes the Nation."
As all of you here today know, mental illness is something that people don't like to talk about a whole lot. As a society, we just aren't very open about it. Sure, we've come a long way over the years in being more honest about it and in talking about it publicly, but really, a great deal of stigma remains. Ignorance remains. And, inequity remains.
There continue to be barriers to treatment for a great number of those who suffer from brain disorders. In a past report by the Surgeon General on mental health, he stated, "[R]esearch-based capacities to identify, treat, and, in some instances, prevent mental disorders are outpacing the capacities of the service system the Nation has in place to deliver mental health care to all who would benefit from it." I am sure you would agree -- passing mental health parity legislation would be the best solution for many of those who suffer!
Serious brain disorders are not at all uncommon. They affect one in every four families. Simply put, a quarter of all families in this country are touched by some aspect of mental illness. In my position as a U.S. Senator, I see it quite a bit. Frequently, I get letters and phone calls from constituents seeking my help -- seeking my help in removing the listening devices that evil doers have planted in their brains or seeking my help in ending the government's conspiracy against them or keeping the CIA from spying on them and trying to kill them.
I take these letters and phone calls seriously. My staff and I don't laugh. We don't make fun. We don't mock. We listen, and we do everything we can to try and help and to be kind and to be compassionate. But, as you all know, I can't make evil voices stop in the heads of schizophrenics, and I can't necessarily bring joy to a deeply depressed individual. If I could, I would. What I try to do, instead, is to use my role as a United States Senator to change the laws and to do the kinds of things that can -- and do -- make a difference in improving the lives of those suffering from debilitating brain disorders.
Long before I came to the Senate, I learned just how wide-sweeping mental health problems and the social issues surrounding them are. Over 30 years ago -- first as the Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for Greene County and then as the Prosecutor -- I saw it all. A day does not go by today in my job in the Senate that I don't look back at those years in the Prosecutor's office and think about what I learned first-hand. Those experiences continue to impact everything I do and the decisions I make.
As a Prosecutor, I saw the problem of people with mental health conditions revolving in and out of the criminal justice system -- in and out, over and over -- often not getting the medical help they needed. That is why, in 1999, I joined with Congressman Ted Strickland to write a law to help create mental health courts. As many of you know, this law authorized grants to assist in the establishment of specialized courts dedicated to dealing with offenders who have mental health problems and are staffed with judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and other court officials specially trained to work with this population and come up with sentences and programs that can help them. Since this law went into effect, the number of mental health courts nationwide has increased from approximately a dozen to over 120! The first such court in Ohio -- the Akron Municipal Mental Health Court -- was recently selected by the Department of Justice as one of five national "learning sites" to serve as a model for other courts to follow. I want to congratulate them again on that honor.
More recently, we expanded on the success of the mental health courts law by writing the "Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act," which establishes a grant program to provide states and local jurisdictions with greater flexibility in addressing the needs of the mentally ill population who encounter the criminal justice system. I'm happy to report that for fiscal year 2006, Congress appropriated $5 million for this law. The Bureau of Justice Assistance just started the process of requesting grant proposals for the FY06 money.
This funding not only can be used for mental health courts, but it also can be used for any program that is jointly requested by a law enforcement agency and mental health provider, including Crisis Intervention Teams, treatment in jails and prisons, or training of officers in how to respond to the mentally ill. Currently, I am working with my colleagues in the Senate to try and fund this program in FY07. We, again, need your support and advocacy in this effort.
Many of you here today know that my biggest passion in the Senate -- the area where I care the most -- is in protecting and providing for America's children. This is especially the case when it comes to the mental health of our kids. Early childhood is a critical time to prevent the onset of emotional and behavioral impairments. If ill children do not receive appropriate treatment or if their illnesses are too severe, these children are more likely to continue on paths which lead to expulsion from school and childcare facilities for disruptive behavior, separation from their families, visits to juvenile justice facilities, and dropping out of high school.
Too many children are suffering. In the past year, alone, it is estimated that 2.2 million adolescents -- that's nine percent of all adolescents -- experienced at least one major depressive episode. Our children and young people need access to services that are appropriately and effectively provided. That is why I worked with Senator Dodd, Senator Reed, and Senator Smith to pass the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act. This law is named in memory of Senator Smith's son Garrett, who took his own young life a few short years ago.
Suicide remains a leading cause of death among our Nation's youth, with about 4000 fifteen to twenty-one year olds taking their lives each year. The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act has started the greatly needed movement of reaching into our schools, our youth detention centers, and the heart of our communities to meet the needs of children at risk for depression and suicide. It promotes the early detection of problems that lead to bigger issues.
This important law also reaches out to our young persons at college. Parents, so often, don't have the ability on a daily basis to notice the changes that can occur while their children are living away from home and handling new life stresses. This law will help build the infrastructure at college campuses, so that there is a safety net for our Nation's students. I look forward to again working with Senators Smith, Dodd, and Reed to ensure that this important law continues to receive the funding it needs.
Before I conclude, I want to touch briefly on the mental health and substance abuse prevention needs of some of our Nation's most vulnerable citizens -- the chronically homeless. Chronic homelessness affects nearly a quarter million Americans. For years at a time, they cycle between shelters, streets, jails, emergency rooms, and psychiatric facilities. They have disabilities, including brain disorders and substance abuse, which are made worse by their homelessness.
In response to the needs of this vulnerable population, I have worked with Senator Reed to introduce the Services for Ending Long-Term Homelessness Act. This bill would ensure that services are provided to the chronically homeless in permanent supportive housing, which has been shown to be the best setting to ensure they remain off the street. I am working to get this bill passed this year in the Senate, and again, I need your help. As the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, of which I am a member, works on reauthorizing SAMHSA, I will work hard to get this passed and these greatly needed services provided.
Again, thank you again for this award. As I said, I am humbled and so very appreciative. I look forward to continuing our work together on all of these important issues.