Mental health advocates are seizing on the new spotlight on their issue after the Florida shooting, as President Trump and congressional Republicans focus on mental health as a solution to gun violence.
Some mental health groups want to use the renewed attention on mental illness to push for resources to address what they see as major gaps in the country’s mental health system.
In the wake of the Florida high school shooting, both Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) pointed to mental health reforms as a solution.
“We are committed to working with state and local leaders to help secure our schools, and tackle the difficult issue of mental health,” Trump said in his first public comments following the shooting.
Ryan pointed to a 2016 mental health measure passed by Congress as one way in which Republicans have responded to mass shootings.
But that law does not focus on the issue of guns and mental health, and would instead create new grant programs and a position for an assistant secretary for mental health.
During a White House meeting on gun violence Wednesday, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said mental health “is at the core of so many of these mass shootings.”
Scalise, who nearly lost his life last year during an attack on a congressional Republican baseball practice, noted the assistant secretary for mental health should help close loopholes that allow mentally ill people to “fall through the cracks.”
While Democrats have accused Republicans of focusing on mental health in an attempt to deflect attention from gun control, advocates welcome the focus.
“A lot of the rhetoric is political. And mental health comes up as a way of deflecting the conversation, but on the other hand, we have a crisis in the lack of mental health care” in the country, said Ron Honberg, senior policy adviser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Every time there’s an opportunity to talk about what’s lacking and improve access and quality of mental health services, that’s not a bad thing,” Honberg added.
Paul Gionfriddo, president of Mental Health America, said that while the some of the rhetoric isn’t helpful, any conversations could be a springboard to policy changes.
“It’s absolutely giving us an opportunity to seize the moment a little bit,” Gionfriddo said of the renewed focus on mental health.
“It is a deflection when people start talking about guns and violence and mental health, but if people want to deflect and have the conversation, I’m than willing to have it,” Gionfriddo added.
On Twitter, Trump’s comments have been pointed. He referred to 19-year-old suspect Nikolas Cruz as a “savage sicko” and “mentally disturbed.”
Earlier this week, Trump also called for involuntarily committing people to mental institutions.
“You know, in the old days we had mental institutions. We had a lot of them. And you could nab somebody like this, because they … knew something was off. You had to know that,” Trump said during a meeting with governors at the White House. “And we’re going to have to start talking about mental institutions.”
Gionfriddo said he doesn’t think lawmakers are actually interested in bringing back state-run mental institutions. But if they want make sure mentally ill people get the care they need, he has an easy solution.
“They just have to pull out a checkbook,” Gionfriddo said. “It’s almost impossible to spend too much now, because we spent so little in the past.”
Still, advocacy groups know they are fighting an uphill battle.
Congressional Republicans have shown little appetite for spending on mental health policy.
“I want to be hopeful. But I look at the little bit of information we’re seeing seeping out … there’s not going to be a lot of new resources available,” said Chuck Ingoglia, senior vice president, public policy for the National Council for Behavioral Health.
Ingoglia said that, if Congress fails to enact health reforms following the Florida shooting, the blame would be squarely onRepublican leaders in Congress.
Ingoglia pointed to a number of different Republicans in the House and Senate who want to help promote mental health, like Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Rep. Lynn Jenkins (Kansas), and Rep. Leonard Lance (N.J.).
The mental health movement in Congress also currently lacks a prominent advocate. Tim Murphy , the Republican sponsor of the 2016 measure, resigned from Congress in October amid affair allegations.
Gionfriddo said Murphy was an effective champion of mental health causes, even if his personality caused friction in the committee.
“It’s always best to have a champion, and part of the role of a champion is to put pressure on colleagues, sometimes at the expense of collegiality,” Gionfriddo said.