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Public Statements

Gun Safety

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, we are about to enter into an incredibly important debate about a series of issues relating to violence--specifically, gun violence--in our communities all across America.

Today I rise to speak about a very important bipartisan amendment I will be offering with Senator Roy Blunt and others called the Excellence in Mental Health Act. This addresses a very important piece of the discussion. It is an opportunity for us to come together amidst a lot of controversial debate and agree on something that is a very important piece of the puzzle--having access to comprehensive, quality mental health services.

This weekend we heard from Francine Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son Ben was murdered on December 14 in Newtown, CT. We know that Ben was one of 26 people--20 children--who lost their lives. I can only begin to imagine what all of us as parents would feel in that situation. For those 26 victims and the 3,300 other Americans killed since then in acts of gun violence, it is time to take action. I am hopeful, given the strong bipartisan vote we had to move forward on this debate, that we can actually have the debate, that people will have their say and then vote on this very important issue.

The bill before us is a commonsense effort toward comprehensive background checks that will help save lives. I am very supportive of not only that provision but others that will be offered as well.

One important piece that hasn't been in the headlines as much but is very important in getting it right is the need for better access to comprehensive mental health services. That is why we need the bipartisan Excellence in Mental Health Act passed as an amendment that will increase access to care and improve the quality of life for those who need it.

We know that a person who does not receive treatment after his or her first psychotic episode is 15 times more likely to commit a violent act. But let me be clear. We also know that the vast majority of those who are living with mental illnesses are more likely to be a victim of crime than to be a perpetrator of crime. But tragedies do happen when treatment and help are not available.

In too many instances today we are seeing that there is not effective help available to people in communities. The current lack of access to mental health services means too often it is the local police who are responding to psychiatric emergencies, and they may not have services to which to take someone. These police officers are being diverted from what they should be doing--responding to other crimes--and so they take people to jail rather than have them get the services they need. They are spending resources incarcerating people who would otherwise need to be and should be in a treatment situation.

That is why we have law enforcement supporting this amendment. We have over 50 organizations--from law enforcement and community mental health and health groups, as well as those who represent our brave veterans home from the war--supporting us because they know that if we don't have quality service in the community, we will continue to see people in jail who shouldn't be in jail, we will continue to see families and individuals not getting the help they need, and in some circumstances we will see more tragedies occur as well.

Over the course of this week, we are going to hear a lot of debate about different aspects of gun safety. Colleagues are going to disagree about the manner of background checks or limits on assault weapons. But I hope there will be no disagreement that people with serious mental illnesses should be given effective treatment and that we can do a better job in our country to make sure treatment is readily available in a community setting. That should be the hopeful part of this whole debate.

Science has shown us significant advances in the study of the brain and the most effective mental health treatments. There are solutions if people get the help they need. They can live healthy, productive lives rather than struggling with their illness. And I applaud President Obama's historic brain mapping initiative to expand that knowledge even more.

It is amazing to me that we have so many studies relating to heart disease, kidney disease, or diabetes, and yet all of the issues relating to the brain--whether it is bipolar disorder or Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease or schizophrenia--we have not tackled with the same vigor. There are solutions. We are finding those every day. There is hope. Today, thanks to cutting-edge research, we have answers for people living with severe mental illnesses. We have proven therapies, treatment options, and medicines that truly transform lives.

I speak as someone who lived, as a daughter, through a time when we did not have appropriate treatments. When I was growing up, in middle school and high school, my father had bipolar disease. At that time we didn't know what it was. He was misdiagnosed for 10 years. At that time everybody was schizophrenic. There was no understanding that we actually have chemical imbalances in the brain, just as someone who isn't monitoring their sugar because they are diabetic might have. They need to monitor that in order to take medicine to keep them on an equilibrium so they do not get sick and have problems. We have the same thing with something called mood disorders in our country, and we have learned much about it. If someone is taking the right medicine, it stops the imbalance where they are either manic or severely depressed.

There are solutions. When my dad was finally diagnosed correctly and received the help he needed and the medicine--at the time it was lithium--he went on to lead a very productive life for the rest of his days. So I have seen both what happens when people don't get treatment and when people do, and we literally have the opportunity to take this next step in order to make sure people all across our country get the help they need.

Unfortunately, today one-third of all bipolar

disorders do not get any treatment even when we know there are absolute answers for individuals and families. Shame on us for not making sure those are readily available. The amendment I will be offering would make sure those are available and close what I believe is the final step in what we have called mental health parity.

We, as a group, on a bipartisan basis passed legislation authored by our dear departed Paul Wellstone and Senator Pete Domenici, with strong advocacy from Senator Ted Kennedy, to provide parity under health insurance between physical and mental health services. We passed that. We have now gone on to strengthen that with the new health reforms that are in place. The only place where we don't have mental health parity right now is in the community outside of the insurance system. We do not have the same parity between what we do through a community health clinic receiving reimbursement for preventive care for health services and what we do for behavioral health--mental health, substance abuse--which is what we are going to fix with this amendment. We want to make sure we are focusing comprehensively in the community.

As part of this, I also wish to talk about another tragedy facing our country; that is, the loss of so many of our heroes from Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a very important part of this story and part of what our amendment will address in a very positive way. Men and women who survive the horrors of war are ending up taking their own lives when they come home. Twenty-two veterans a day commit suicide, 22 a day today, yesterday, and tomorrow. They and their families, all those in that situation, need to know there is help available for them. That is why we have very strong support from veterans, the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans organizations, which were very pleased to have stood with us last week when we did a press conference with veterans to focus on this important part of the puzzle.

We know that one in four veterans coming home needs some kind of mental health support, so we want to make sure that if they are in a rural community in northern Michigan and it is 3 or 4 hours to drive to the VA, they instead could receive some help in their own community--working with the VA but receiving help in their own community--and that is what this does. We want to make sure that our veterans are fully receiving the services promised them and that comprehensive health care will be available to them when they come home.

I would like to share just one story from our press conference.

Jennifer Crane joined us. She is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. This October will mark 10 years since she returned home, but she says, ``The experiences live inside of me like it was yesterday.'' She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. She couldn't sleep. She self-medicated and ended up homeless and in trouble with law enforcement. But when she got the help she needed at a community mental health center, it transformed her life. She met the man who would become her husband. She is now going to have a baby and now works with Give an Hour, which is a wonderful organization that helps veterans get the mental health services they need, and they are strongly supporting what we are doing as well.

Jennifer could have ended up a statistic, but she got the help she needed. We need to give every one of our heroes coming home from war the same opportunity. That is why the Excellence in Mental Health Act is so important as a part of all of this effort.

We have come a long way, in a bipartisan way, to recognize the need for mental health treatment. As I mentioned before, the wonderful partnership of Senators Domenici, Wellstone, and Kennedy paved the way for us to more fully understand that when we talk about comprehensive health services, we shouldn't stop at the neck--from the neck down, one set of rules; from the neck up, another set of rules--that, in fact, we are talking about comprehensive care. We need to make sure we lose that stigma and focus instead on what we can do to help people receive the services they need. This amendment takes those efforts across the finish line by expanding access to community mental health services.

I knew there would be a lot of controversial debate, but I hope in the end we will be able to come together, as we have on this amendment. I am very appreciative of the bipartisan support. I want to thank Senator Roy Blunt again on our Excellence in Mental Health Act, as well as Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Susan Collins, Senator Lisa Murkowski, and others who have expressed their support as well. This is an opportunity for us to come together, as we have in the past, and do the right thing for millions of families dealing with mental illnesses that are treatable. The good news is there is hope now. There are actually answers now to so many mental illnesses. By passing our bipartisan Excellence in Mental Health Act we can prevent tragedies from happening in families all over our country.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT


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