Column: A real conversation about mental health

WASHINGTON -- As has happened far too often in recent years, the mass shooting at an Oregon community college has prompted yet another "national conversation about mental health." And mental health reform should indeed be a priority.

WASHINGTON - As has happened far too often in recent years, the mass shooting at an Oregon community college has prompted yet another “national conversation about mental health.” And mental health reform should indeed be a priority.
Unfortunately, this conversation is often intended as a substitute for a conversation about gun safety.
If we want to address the gun violence epidemic, we have to focus on getting dangerous weapons out of the wrong hands. In fact, using mental health as a scapegoat at moments like this can be downright counter-productive if we make the mistake of stigmatizing mental illness and, potentially, discouraging people from seeking help out of concern that a diagnosis of mental illness will represent a red flag on their record.
Yes, for the small minority of those suffering from mental illness who might be susceptible to becoming violent, better detection and treatment can dramatically reduce that risk. But the truth is that those with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.
Indeed, we should focus on early intervention - out of compassion for the vast majority of Americans with mental illness who pose no threat and deserve a chance to lead healthy, fulfilling lives.
One place to begin taking action is in our criminal justice system. The U.S. has five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population - in large part because we have criminalized mental illness, using our justice system as a substitute for a fully functioning mental health system. “Local jails,” as Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has said, “are the largest mental health facilities in the state of Minnesota.”
That’s a huge problem, and it’s why I’ve written a bill called the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act that would offer federal support for more mental health courts (including special courts for veterans), more crisis intervention teams, more corrections-based services for people with mental illness, and more training for law enforcement officers to help them recognize and respond to mental health crises safely.
There is bipartisan and bicameral support for this bill, and we should pass it into law as soon as possible.
Another place where we could do more to recognize and treat mental illness is in our schools. My Mental Health in Schools Act would help train the people who interact with our kids every day - from bus drivers to principals - to recognize when students are struggling, and provide schools with the resources to react and partner with community-based providers. I was proud to help get a bill passed in the Senate this summer that would help more schools get federal funding to increase access to mental health services, but there’s much more work to do.
Finally, we need to expand our mental health workforce. I’m a co-sponsor of the Cassidy-Murphy Mental Health Reform Act, which would address this problem by making it easier for child and adolescent psychiatrists working in high-need areas to get their medical school loans forgiven, establish a new position within the Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate mental health services, and fund comprehensive community-based mental health programs in all 50 states.
These all-too-frequent “national conversations” always begin with widespread agreement that we need to Do Something Before This Happens Again, but never seem to result in anything actually getting done - certainly not on gun safety, and not even on mental health.
This time, let’s not let the conversation end without taking meaningful action - action that should begin with passing these three bills into law.

Al Franken represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.

What To Read Next