Work not done for interim committee on mental health

      An interim panel on mental health policy will hold at least two more hearings according to its chairman, who says its members are taking in information like “drinking water out of a firehose.”

Representative Wayne Wallingford (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      The committee has already heard issues including that there is a staffing shortfall within the Department of Mental Health, and that Missouri ranks 31st in the U.S. for access to mental health services. 

      Chairman Wayne Wallingford (R-Cape Girardeau) said after hearing from state organizations in the first hearing and non-profits in the second, the committee will take testimony on November 3 from individuals with experience dealing with mental health issues.

      “Either because they’re a guardian for someone or they have a son or a relative affected by that, or maybe even themselves,” said Wallingford.

      Wallingford said the committee has drawn a great deal of attention already.

      “I thought maybe I could get it done in three meetings,” said Wallingford.  “I’ve already got the November 3 meeting full and working on the November 10th meeting and it’s probably at least a third full already … so it’s generated a lot of interest and that’s good.”

      Wallingford anticipates there will be legislation in the 2022 legislative session that will stem from these hearings.  He doesn’t have specific bills in mind, but he has his eye on some pilot programs that he feels have been working well in the Columbia area.

      “If we can do something to spread that around the state that would be great.”

      Wallingford said the committee also heard that law enforcement officers often find themselves sitting at hospital bedsides by those who have been arrested and suffer from mental health issues, until a space in mental health institutions can be found for them. 

“If there’s anything we can do legislative-wise to increase the number of beds, that would really, really help.”

      The committee will prepare a report before the session begins in January, and from its findings could come more legislative proposals. 

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.