04/02/2013 01:51 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2013

In Wake of Tragedies, Action Needed -- on More than Guns

President Obama said last week of the Newtown tragedy, "tears aren't enough... now is the time to turn that heartbreak into something real."

I agree. I am very thankful that Senator Reid has pledged to hold a vote on mental health legislation as an amendment to a gun safety bill coming before the Senate next week. Over the last few months the country has been engaged in an in-depth conversation about guns. We need an equally serious conversation about mental health care.

That's why a bipartisan group of senators, including myself and Senators Blunt, Reed, Rubio, Boxer, Collins, Leahy, Murkowski, Tester, Begich, Coons, Mikulski and Rockefeller have joined together to introduce the Excellence in Mental Health Act to help millions of Americans get the mental health treatment they need.

The vast majority of those living with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators. Reducing the stigma associated with mental health issues is critical to ensuring that people seek out the care they need.

But we also know that there are too many times when lack of diagnosis and effective mental health treatment has led to horrible tragedies. A person who does not receive treatment after his or her first psychotic episode is 15 times more likely to commit a violent act. The current lack of access to community care forces local law enforcement to be the ones to respond to psychiatric emergencies, diverting officers from other duties and causing them to spend resources to incarcerate people who have an illness rather than treat them.

And with at least 25 percent of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan experiencing some type of mental health condition, access to quality mental health services in communities across America is all the more urgent.

As I've discussed our new legislation with others, I have yet to meet anyone who does not know someone struggling with mental illness.

Malkia Newman from my home state of Michigan is living with bipolar disorder. Malkia struggled for 30 years without diagnosis or treatment. Her work suffered, and she had trouble caring for her daughter. But then Malkia got treatment. Her life was transformed, and she has now dedicated her life to ensuring that others have access to life-changing treatment as she did.

There are many daughters and sons who have a parent that shares Malkia's disorder. For many years, I was one of them.

As a child I remember my dad staying up all night, telling my mom about all the new big ideas he was developing. His illness resulted in our family losing our home. In the 1960s, doctors' understanding of mental illness was limited, so my dad was misdiagnosed and given drugs that made him unable to work for weeks at a time.

After many years, my dad was finally correctly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and received proper treatment. The difference was night and day for him, and for my family.

In more severe cases, treatment doesn't just improve lives, it saves them. Washington, D.C. resident Nancy Smith's daughter was hospitalized four times because of suicide attempts. When her daughter was finally able to get proper care from a community mental health agency, Nancy said it "literally saved my daughter's life, and her future."

Our country still loses too many young people like Nancy's daughter to violence or suicide. What makes those losses so much more tragic is that in many cases, we have the ability to ease the pain and save lives with proper care.

Yet one-third of all Americans living with a mood disorder are still not getting the treatment they need, and fewer than half of the people with a severe mental illness are getting treatment of any kind.

Our bipartisan group introduced the Excellence in Mental Health Act to expand access to community mental health treatment and improve the quality of care. The bill also puts mental health services on more equal footing with treatment for physical Illnesses. There is no reason that mental and physical health care are still treated so differently. When you have a problem with every other part of the body, you get it treated. Yet when there is a problem with the brain, this has traditionally been seen in a vastly different way. That has led to the stigmatization of mental health conditions, and to mental health services taking a back seat to physical care.

It's time for that to change.

Passing the Excellence in Mental Health Act is an opportunity for Congress to make a real difference for millions of American families and their communities.