From the Fort Hood soldier who last week opened fire and killed three of his comrades to the Pennsylvania teenager who was charged this week with knifing 19 of his fellow students and a security guard, lawmakers want to know what sets off such violent attacks and how to prevent the next one. In the case of the Fort Hood soldier, it’s been reported that he had an altercation with a superior who denied his request for leave. The teenager is said to have had a confrontational phone call the night before he allegedly went on his rampage.
“These are sparks, but there’s usually a long fuse that goes with that,” said Pittsburgh Rep. Tim Murphy, the only practicing clinical psychologist in Congress and author of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. Social welfare issues are more typically the domain of Democrats on Capitol Hill, and Murphy is a Republican, which in today’s fractured politics bodes well for a bipartisan breakthrough on mental health legislation. Franklin Regional High School, where the stabbings occurred, is just outside his district.
On the wall of Murphy’s office in the Rayburn building is a framed copy of a Patient’s Bill of Rights that he authored as a state senator in Pennsylvania. On an end table are photos of the Sandy Hook families and pictures of some of the children who died that terrible day in December 2012, “a reminder of the mission we’re on,” he said. Appointed in 2012 to chair the subcommittee on oversight and investigations of the Energy and Commerce committee, Murphy launched a yearlong investigation into government mental health practices, the result of which is embodied in the legislation he introduced in December 2013.
The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act has 72 co-sponsors, divided roughly evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Key provisions would increase the number of hospital beds available for crisis psychiatric care, improve access to mental health care for children and adolescents, authorize an assistant secretary of mental health at the Health and Human Services Department, and encourage states to adopt a “need for treatment” standard for care, as opposed to the current requirement that a person must pose a danger to themselves or others before they can be committed. “I know from personal experience how hard it is for families to protect their loved ones from themselves,” said former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who together with his siblings gained guardianship of his mother at a time in her illness when she was unable to keep herself out of harm’s way.
Kennedy resigned his House seat after the 2010 election and now works as a full-time advocate on mental health issues. It is an extension of his family’s work on civil rights, he said, with returning war veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder the catalyst for the Mental Health Parity and Addiction law that President Bush signed in 2008. “It was our Selma,” he said. When he was in Congress Kennedy worked with Murphy, and while the former congressman doesn’t like every provision in Murphy’s bill, he broadly supports it. “I salute Tim’s effort to keep this going,” Kennedy said. “He propels us on a bipartisan basis, and the NRA doesn’t bother with us. They’re perfectly happy we’re pushing the mental-health agenda because it serves their very narrow interest in keeping people from doing anything on guns.”
Now that all efforts to legislate gun control are stalled, it may be time for mental-health legislation to stand on its own. “There’s no left or right on this issue,” said Murphy. One in five Americans experiences mental illness at some time in their life, he said, yet there is still a stigma attached to it. His colleagues sometimes tease him about his profession. Asked for an example, he said that on the House floor Thursday, one member said to another, “Be careful, Murphy can read your mind.” At the same time, he said members ask him all the time for advice about a family member or someone they know.
Five years ago, with no prior history in the military, Murphy joined the Naval Reserve. Commissioned as a lieutenant commander, he spends two days a month at Walter Reed hospital counseling returning soldiers, plus additional time as required. “People have a right to get well,” he said, language that is not often applied from his side of the aisle to health care.
Asked why he went into politics, Murphy, 61, replied with a laugh, “to help fix health care.” That was in the 1990s, when insurance companies were making decisions he didn’t think were in the best interest of patients. He served in the Pennsylvania state Senate for five years before his election to Congress in 2002. His book, The Angry Child, a primer for parents with out-of-control children, describes the buildup, the spark, the explosion, and the aftermath, a chain of events applicable to the perpetrators in Columbine, Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Fort Hood, and the Pennsylvania school stabbing.
“If all we take away from this is the spark, we’re missing the point,” Murphy said. “Plenty of people in the military get their leave denied, and they don’t go out and shoot somebody. Kids get bullied every day, and they don’t harm others. The question is: What else was going on in his life?” As a Republican, Murphy would be the last to say that any federal law or government program could fix what’s wrong in a mental health care system that hasn’t been seriously overhauled since John F. Kennedy was in the White House. But people want answers, and the need for mental health treatment and prevention is beginning to get the support it deserves.