THE BLOG
03/08/2013 11:30 am ET | Updated May 08, 2013

Congressman Tim Murphy 'Gets' Serious Mental Illness

As a lifelong Democrat, it pains me to say the best advocate for people with serious mental illness appears to be Representative Tim Murphy, the Republican Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

For most leaders, once there is a "Mentally Ill Killer on Rampage" (sic) headline, political correctness -- rather than finding solutions -- becomes the top priority. We're subjected to comfortable platitudes like 'most people with mental illness are not violent' or 'are more likely to be victims than perpetrators.' Our well-intentioned desire to avoid stigmatizing people with mental illness who do not become violent, causes us to avoid helping persons with mental illness who do become violent. Congressman Murphy called this, 'keeping the blinders on.'

On Face The Nation, CSPAN and in hearings on March 5, Congressman Murphy, a board certified psychologist demonstrated he's not going down that road. He indicated his intent to have a nationwide forum and hearings on the very narrow issue of 'serious mental illness and violence'. The elephant in the room. And to their credit, the Democrats seemed to join him in taking the blinders off.

In opening remarks to the oversight hearings Dr. Murphy recognized most people with mental illness are not violent but rather than stop there, went on to explain:

That's why this subcommittee is working to identify precisely what federal resources -- in support of both research and care -- are being devoted to those among the mentally ill who are most prone to violence: the severely mentally ill who are not being treated. And even more importantly -- what fraction of these resources are actually reaching these individuals?

On Face the Nation when someone tried to deflect the issue of violence among persons with mental illness to violent video games he argued for keeping the eye on the prize:

Video games don't cause it. We're chasing the wrong rabbit down the wrong hole... The issue is we need to be addressing mental illness, and we're not. Once again we're going to dismiss it in some other ways.

On March 5 on CPAN's Washington Journal someone tried to suggest that upbringing and environment cause serious mental illness. Dr. Murphy politely but forceably disagreed and cited science to correct this misperception.

I disagree with you. Many people are born with a genetic basis of mental illness... With severe disorders it is not just stress and strain. ... There are seriously mentally ill with genetic and biological aspects. We can't wish (serious mental illness) away or pretend it doesn't exist the same way I can't pretend cancer or diabetes don't exist... (The) key to understanding mental illness is to understand it is a genuine diagnosable and treatable illness and the more we find out: they have neurological base.

When someone tried to make it a Democrat versus Republican issue, Dr. Murphy responded:

This is not GOP versus Dems. I want this to be about mental illness. I am going to push this another way. I want to go at this relentlessly, and some people are going to try to help me go down some other road. You have millions of Americans with a problem not being treated. Sit with a parent with tears in eyes (saying), "I can not control my child, we live in fear, we lock our bedroom doors at night, we have a son who we worry is he gonna take a knife and stab us with the knife, is he gonna kill himself, is he gonna jump in front of a car, is he gonna jump off the bridge." They're not asking what political party you belong to. We need to stop pretending and get down to the job of getting these people the help they need.

A well-spoken caller who identified herself as a law student who once had a mental health issue asked, "Why there are no panelists with psychiatric histories who talk about this from their own perspective? This could increase stigma and reluctance to get care." This question is often asked by high-functioning people with various mental health issues and often causes politicians to abandon their focus on the most seriously ill and to change focus towards helping the highest functioning. While Dr. Murphy noted that a future panel could include people high-functioning enough to testify in front of Congress,

This panel is about mental illness and violence, and I am not gonna pull a convicted felon out of jail to talk about why they killed someone. I'm just not gonna do it. ... As a psychologist I have an obligation to do no harm. And I am not gonna put someone with mental illness on just to put them on parade. And someone with serious mental illness or schizophrenia or psychotic disorder (this pressure) can set them off.

Should care and treatment of people with serious mental illness be a federal responsibility? Answering his own question, he stayed focused on the most seriously ill

Yes. It is a public health concern. People who are seriously mentally ill who don't get help do not simply go away. They go to emergency rooms, they show up police stations. Police have to go to homes to pick them up. They flooded jails. 20-50 percent of incarcerated are mentally ill... We are finding more on the medical and neurological basis... We don't have enough beds. We went from 600,000 psychiatric beds to 20 percent of needs, maybe 40,000 or something beds.

After establishing that the oversight hearings will remain focused on serious mental illness and violence, and not be diverted to other ancillary issues, he enumerated various issues he felt needed addressing:

  • An audit of how much we are spending and where we are spending it to determine if funds are reaching those most in need or being diverted elsewhere.
  • Suspected mismanagement at SAMHSA, citing a $22,000 piece of art they commissioned
  • Provisions of HIPAA that prevent families of persons with mental illness from getting the information they need to see their loved one gets appropriate care.
  • Assisting states in implementing programs that prevent violence while helping persons with serious mental illness.

It is important to note that while Dr. Murphy heads the oversight committee, the hearings were bipartisan and almost all the participants stayed through to the end, asked hopeful questions and most importantly, seemed to truly want to stay focused on the issue at hand: serious mental illness and violence.

This could get interesting.

DJ Jaffe is Executive Director of Mental Illness Policy Org., dedicated to providing science based information on serious mental illness to policymakers and public.

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