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After tragedy, Congress zeroes in on mental health

A number of lawmakers have turned their efforts toward expanding mental health awareness and services following the deadly shooting at the Navy Yard and in the
Ron Barber Gun Violence - Jane Timm - 09/18/2013
Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., who took over for Congresswoman Gabby Giffords who was severely injured in a shooting in Tuscon, Ariz., listens at a special House...

A number of lawmakers have turned their efforts toward expanding mental health awareness and services following the deadly shooting at the Navy Yard and in the absence of viable gun control legislation.

Repeated failures to pass legislation that would restrict American gun sales--including bipartisan legislation to expand gun background checks earlier this year--has left some in Congress seeking an alternative way to prevent future tragedies as Americans call for action. "We don't have the votes," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday when asked if he would consider returning gun control reform to the floor.

In the House, Arizona Democrat Rep. Ron Barber has renewed his push for funds to train police officers, teachers, firefighters, and others to identify signs of mental illness.

Barber was shot twice in Tuscon, Ariz., when a man who would later be diagnosed as schizophrenic opened fire at an outreach event hosted by then Rep. Gabby Giffords. When Giffords resigned from office due to her injuries, Barber was elected to her seat.

Barber introduced the Mental Health First Aid Act in the House in June; it now has 50 cosponsors. The bill would authorize $20 million in grants for mental health training for law enforcement, emergency officials, teachers, primary care doctors, and others. Identifying mental illness is a key step to prevention, treatment, and preventing tragedies, Barber argues.

"While there is no single answer to preventing mass shootings, we know that untreated or undiagnosed serious mental illness has been a factor in a number of the recent tragedies," he said in a statement Tuesday. "Mental illness may well have played a role in Monday's tragedy that left 12 innocent people and the shooter dead at the Navy Yard in Washington."

In the Senate, Arkansas Democrat Mark Begich and New Hampshire's Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte are asking Senate leaders to bring their version of the Mental Health First Aid act to the floor. Key provisions of the bill were first introduced as an amendment to the background check bill; the amendment was passed 95-2, but the broader bill failed to pass the Senate in April.

"Given the clear connection between recent mass shootings and mental illness, the Senate should not delay bipartisan legislation that would help address this issue," they said in a statement Wednesday morning. When considered as an amendment, the Senate voted overwhelmingly

Reports of Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis’ mental illnesses began to emerge as a portrait of the 34-year-old former Navy reservist and civilian contractor developed in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Alexis sought mental health care through Veterans Affairs and was being treated for a number of problems, including paranoia and anger, NBC News reported.

Last month in Rhode Island, Alexis' mental illness problems became apparent to police when he called Rhode Island police to a hotel where he said he heard voices of people he had never seen, but was sure were following and threatening him. They were sending micro-waves through the walls to keep him awake, he told police. They noted in their police report that he showed some signs of mental deficiency, NBC News reports.

Related: ‘He paid the fine and went on about his way,’ police chief describes Navy Yard shooter

The legislation would provide trainings to teach people to recognize the symptoms of mental illness, de-escalate crisis situations, and refer individuals to care resources. Beginning next year, mental health coverage will be expanded under Obamacare, which mandates that plans cover counseling and psychotherapy treatment, as well as a number of screenings.

“The young man who killed six people and wounded 13 in Tucson on Jan. 8, 2011, had displayed symptoms of mental illness for at least two years prior to the shooting—and yet he never received a diagnosis or treatment,” Barber wrote in a June op-ed. Barber and Giffords’ shooter, Jared Loughner, was undiagnosed; the community college he was expelled from advised his family to have him undergo a mental evaluation, but they never followed up on it.

President Obama Tuesday called on Congress to do more to prevent such mass killings, particularly by expanding gun background checks. "We don't have to live" this way, he said in an interview with Telemundo.