By Martin Kidston

New mental health care legislation working its way through Congress has won the support of Montana’s chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, which hailed the measure this week as a crucial step forward in addressing both treatment and intervention.

The Metal Health Reform Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, would establish several new initiatives to strengthen mental health services while increasing access to treatment.

“I think this is a strong step in the right direction,” Matt Kuntz, executive director of NAMI Montana, said Thursday. “The mental health treatment system is evolving. A lot of the pressure points are at the federal level. The federal system has to evolve with the direction things are moving.”

Among other things, the act would establish a 5 percent set-aside fund for early intervention services for individuals with severe mental illness. It would also create new grants to help cities respond to drug epidemics, and would require the National Suicide Prevention Hotline to be available all day every day.

It would also direct the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to create a strategic plan to coordinate services across all federal agencies. It calls upon the agency to publish practices proven effective in treating mental health and substance abuse issues.

Kuntz testified before a Senate committee when the legislation was introduced. He said the federal effort mirrors a similar bipartisan measure implemented in Montana.

“It's really important the feds and state stay on the same path,” Kuntz said. “If they move in different directions, it opens a lot of gaps in our treatment system. I really like how well this national reform effort fits in with the efforts that have been ongoing in Montana.”

According to NAMI, approximately one in five adults in the U.S. experience mental health disorders each year, costing families $193 billion in lost annual earnings. Yet mental health care treatment can be difficult to come by, especially in rural states like Montana.

Tester said the Mental Health Reform Act would establish new mental health care initiatives, strengthen existing mental health services and increase access to mental health care treatment in the state.

“I believe the lack of mental health services is one of the biggest threats that folks face across the nation,” Tester said.“This bipartisan bill will better connect folks with the mental health care treatment they need, and bring more awareness to the challenges folks face while dealing with mental illness.”

The act also includes Tester's Bringing Postpartum Depression Out of the Shadows Act, which looks to expand screening and referral services for new mothers.

The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act is also included. That would reauthorize suicide prevention strategies and provide mental health awareness training grants to first responders and school personnel.

“A lot of the things we see in this federal bill are exactly the same bipartisan efforts that have moved through the Legislature,” Kuntz said. “They work hand in hand with many of the bipartisan mental health bills we've seen the last session, from treatment beds to suicide prevention in the schools.”

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