Southeast Missourian, By Samantha Rinehart ~ May 29, 2014

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt stood before community leaders, counselors and board members at the Community Counseling Center in Cape Girardeau on Wednesday afternoon advocating for improved behavioral health treatment.

The event came on the eve of the center’s 40th anniversary, said executive director John Hudak, who hailed the senator’s visit as an opportunity to look at the future of mental-health services at a time when the center is celebrating the strides it has taken in the past.

Hudak also noted that should the center still provide services to the public in another 40 years, it will be in no small part because of the Excellence in Mental Health Act, sponsored by Blunt and Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

The legislation, signed into law by the president in April, is expected to expand access to community mental-health services, and strengthen the quality of care provided for people living with mental illnesses. It also will provide federal funding for pilot programs in eight states that will be selected to help improve mental-health centers, and Blunt said he is hoping Missouri will be among that number.

He said he believes now is the perfect time to advocate for improved behavioral health treatment. Blunt said he’s been interested in the issue for many years, but recent events encouraged him to take action.

Too many tragedies have taken place because of untreated mental-health issues, he said, referring to incidents such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School and Fort Hood shootings. When the U.S. Senate committee that deals with mental-health issues met in January 2013, a month after Sandy Hook, for the first time since 2007, Blunt said it was obvious changes needed to be made.

“The consistent thing with all these tragedies we see, the weapons can vary, the places can vary, the victims can vary, but there’s always somebody with a behavioral development issue at the root of this tragedy,” he said.

Equally important to note is the fact that most people diagnosed with behavioral health issues are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators, he pointed out. A certain stigma exists in society when it comes to mental health that needs to be addressed to make significant change.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of people who have behavioral-health issues,” he said. “We need to treat these health issues as they are. We need to treat all health issues the same way.”

The Excellence in Mental Health Act has received support from groups such as the National Sheriffs’ Association because it could be the answer to keeping individuals with mental-health issues out of the prison system. Cape Girardeau County Sheriff John Jordan said there are probably about 1 million men and women incarcerated nationwide who suffer from mental-health issues who would be better rehabilitated in another facility. But cuts in funding and overworked facilities often mean these people don’t receive the help they need.

“Penal institutions have become the dumping ground,” he said.

While the Excellence in Mental Health Act has no specific provisions to help with that issue, Blunt said he’s sponsoring the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act, which focuses on helping law enforcement officers identify and respond to mental-health issues and extend funding for mental-health courts and law enforcement crisis intervention teams.