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Capitol Hill hearing examines mental health obstacles

Saturday - 3/9/2013, 7:33am  ET

Darci Marchese, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Since the Newtown tragedy, the nation has looked for ways to help the mentally ill receive treatment, and a hearing this week on Capitol Hill explored options to improve access.

Psychiatrists, mental health advocates and parents of mentally ill children testified at a subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations at the Rayburn Building. The hearing was led by Chairman Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and ranking member Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).

Despite the mass shooting at Sandy Hook and others that preceded it, the hearing's discussion did not focus on violence from the mentally ill, since statistics show the mentally ill are no more violent than anyone else.

Instead, the majority of the testimony focused on the county's broken mental health system.

"We have a failed mental health system that is not addressing the needs of people who desperately need help," says Pete Earley, an author and father of a mentally ill son.

Earley has written several books, including "Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness," after trying to navigate through the system when his son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

He told lawmakers he lied to police, telling them his son threatened his life, just so he could be forced into treatment. Earley talked about the lack of beds, the lack of services and the hundreds of thousands of people with mental illness who end up in prisons.

The panel also heard from Liza Long. Her son was diagnosed with a mental illness at age 5. She and her son have struggled ever since. She said the stigma for parents and children is real.

Long asked her son, Michael, what he'd like to tell lawmakers.

"Tell them I'm not a bad kid," he told her.

Pat Milam couldn't hold back the tears, talking about his son who committed suicide in 2011 at the age of 24. He described his son as a kind, compassionate, beloved kid and talked about his battle to get his son necessary treatment when he was sick.

"From the day he got in, they were already talking about getting him out," Milam said.

He explained that most insurance companies don't cover mental health treatment after five days.

Milam told lawmakers his son tried to kill himself two other times. He said it was agonizing to see his son in so much pain, tortured and afraid. Ultimately, he killed himself by using a homemade bomb in his bedroom at age 24.

Dr. Harold Koplewicz, a leading child psychiatrist, said people don't treat mental illness like a physical illness. He said if someone started having chest pains during the hearing, someone would call an ambulance. But if someone started ranting, they would call the police.

Koplewicz says there is no awareness month set aside for mental illness. It doesn't get the same attention as breast cancer, testicular cancer or AIDS. He hopes that will change.

Since mental illness is typically diagnosed between the ages of 18 and 24, mental health advocates suggest that teachers in schools take a closer look at their students.

Koplewicz urges teachers not to ignore the "weird or quiet kid," but to make sure they're getting the help they need.

Other ideas involve inclusion of college administrators in observing behaviors.

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