House pushes mental health awareness after death of members’ family friend

The sponsor of mental health legislation said that issue hit close to home for her on the day her bill came to the House floor.

Representative Chrissy Sommer (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

St. Charles Republican Chrissy Sommer said that during her drive to the Capitol on Monday she received the tragic news that the mother of her daughter’s best friend had committed suicide.

“You may have noticed I’m a little shaky and nervous, and the reason is because on my way here today I found out that a friend of mind committed suicide, and I’ve been thinking about her a lot,” said Sommer.  “It really struck me that this [bill] was pulled up today … because it can affect everyone.”

The House gave initial approval to House Bill 108, which would have Missouri join the federal government in making May “Mental Health Awareness Month,” and in making July “Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.”

“I’m thinking of her and I’m doing this in her honor, and I hope that we will pass it … I don’t mean to get emotional … but I hope that we will pass this not only in her honor but in the honor of everyone who has lost someone to suicide,” said Sommer.

Sommer said untreated mental health contribute to things like unemployment, disability, homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, and suicide.

“Early identification and treatment of mental illnesses have proven to be vital to any recovery process.  Stigma association with mental illness prevents many individuals from seeking the necessary treatment,” said Sommer.

The House heard that there are particular stigmas and disparities within minority communities regarding mental health.

St. Louis Democrat Bruce Franks, who speaks openly about numerous traumas in his life including seeing his brother fatally shot when they were both children, said he has contemplated suicide in the past.  He said there is a stigma in the African American community about getting help and what “mental health” is.”

Representative Bruce Franks (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I talk on the floor about the funerals I’ve gone through and some of the things that I’ve seen, and even a couple of my Republican colleague friends on the other side have been to my district to see some of these traumatic things, so just imagine when folks are going through this each and every day and it plays on you mentally and you never get the help that you need because the people in your community and society sees this as a stigma,” said Franks.

Franks said the legislation is “very important, and it’s not just about an awareness month.  It’s about education and empowering people to let them know it’s okay to not be okay but it’s okay to seek help.”

Jefferson City Republican Dave Griffith said he hopes raising awareness will cause more struggling veterans to get help.

“Many of you may not have heard ‘hashtag-22.’  Hashtag-22 stands for the 22 veterans that commit suicide every day.  It is for real.  These men and women are suffering from PTSD and from many other mental illnesses and having a day or a month that we can recognize them is something that I stand for,” said Griffith.

“The perception of mental illness won’t change unless we act on it, and one way to do this is for us in Missouri to enact the Mental Health Awareness Month,” said Sommer.

With the House’s action on Monday, one more favorable vote would send HB 108 to the Senate.

House votes to expand definition of ‘service dog,’ criminalize faking a service animal

The Missouri House has voted to expand the state’s legal definition of what qualifies as a “service dog,” and to make illegal the faking of having a service animal.

A service dog, with training that includes waiting patiently for long periods, lays next to its master during a meeting in a hearing room in the Missouri State Capitol. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

House Bills 1369 and 2031 are aimed at making life better for those who legitimately have service dogs and service animals, according to sponsor Chrissy Sommer (R-St. Charles).  She said such people make up a growing segment of society, as the list of conditions dogs can help with continues to grow.

“There are a lot of soldiers, there are a lot of seniors who either have, say, PTSD or some ailment or disability that’s not visible that when they go into the public, even though ADA says these are service dogs, entities or businesses or even individuals don’t understand that because you don’t see a disability; it’s not visible,” said Sommer.

HB 1369 changes the definition of “service dog” to include psychiatric service dogs and mental health service dogs.  The definition covers dogs that serve individuals with conditions including panic attacks, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Sommer said the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has left the definition of what is considered a “service dog” in kind of a gray area, so HB 1369 will make clear what animals qualify as service dogs.

HB 2031 would add to Missouri’s law against impersonating a person with a disability the crime of misrepresenting a dog or animal as a service dog or assistance animal.  It would make those misdemeanors punishable by up to fifteen days in jail, or up to 6 months for repeated violations.

Backers of HB 2031 said when people fake having a service animal it casts doubt on individuals who really do have them.  Sommer said such fraud causes other issues as well, when untrained dogs have been, “attacking service dogs in training, them attacking patrons of a restaurant; airplanes are starting to crack down too because what happens is a service dog goes through training – how to handle and airplane, how to handle that pressure, how to handle the different noises, how to handle that small little area they have to be in, whereas a pet, if you try to bring them on a plane and say, ‘Oh, this is a service dog,’ I mean think of what it does to a person.  They’ll freak out,” said Sommer.

St. Louis Democrat Tracy McCreery said she initially thought HB 2031 was not necessary, but has reversed that opinion.

Representative Chrissy Sommer (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

“I think a lot of us see now, when we go out to eat or out into social settings, there seem to be a lot more dogs in places where normally animals are not permitted, like restaurants and things like that, so we need to kind of get a handle on things, if you will.  Several states – I think there have been about 19 states that have cracked down on these fake services dogs,” said McCreery.  “What the lady’s bill will do, I think, is help make things more comfortable for those families and people that actually have legitimate service dogs.”

HB 2031 would require the Commission on Human Rights to use its existing complaint hotline to take reports of individuals believed to be faking having a disability or a service animal.

It would also require the Governor’s Council on Disability to design a placard that restaurants and other businesses could display stating that service dogs are welcome and that misrepresentation of a service dog is illegal.  A brochure would also be created to help business owners know what questions are allowed and guidelines on how to behave around service animals.

Each bill received only one “no” in the House’s vote to send them to the Senate for consideration.

Additional audio:

“Because people are taking untrained pets into public areas and telling people, ‘This is a service dog,’ what happens is the dog that’s not trained, in some situations, they’ll panic, they’ll attack the people around them, they’ll go to the bathroom, they’ll bark, they’ll be disruptive,” said Sommer.