As Congress grapples with the country’s ongoing mental health crisis, Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., is hoping a bill she has championed since her first term will finally make it across the finish line.

The measure aims to reduce police killings of individuals with severe mental illness by creating a grant program for mental health provider first responder units that can be deployed during emergency calls.

What You Need To Know

  • The Mental Health Justice Act aims to reduce police killings of individuals with severe mental illness by creating a grant program for mental health provider first responder units that can be deployed during emergency calls

  • The bill passed the House in 2022, but never got a vote in the Senate

  • The bill has over 30 co-sponsors already and has been endorsed by groups such as the American Psychology Association, Center for American Progress, and others

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren is sponsoring the companion bill in the Senate

“When we look at the problem of fatal police encounters, we really can't solve that problem without providing better resources, and better responses to people in mental health crisis,” said Porter in an exclusive interview with Spectrum News ahead of her reintroduction of the Mental Health Justice Act.  

“We're trying to respond in different ways with better counselors in schools, and other kinds of better insurance coverage for mental health,” she continued. “But we also need to help law enforcement and give them the kind of responders that they need in a community so that we're not putting law enforcement into situations that they're not able to deliver the best quality care.”

The bill, which Porter introduced in 2020 and again in 2021, passed through the House with bipartisan support last year but never got a vote in the Senate. The bill, if passed, would create a grant program that allows states, Tribes, and localities to hire, train, and dispatch mental health professionals to respond to mental health emergencies instead of police when 911, 988, or another emergency hotline is called. The bill would also establish best practices for mental health professionals responding to mental health emergencies. 

“When we see somebody suffering, struggling, whether it's a substance use disorder, whether it's a mental health disorder, we want there to be responders – people want to call but they're often hesitant to call the police, because they don't necessarily want to take the police away from fighting crime,” reasoned Porter. “And they don't necessarily want to send someone on a path toward incarceration merely for being sick.”

“I think having the right kind of responders will also help the community feel like they can speak up and they can help with mental health issues.”

Porter’s office cited data from a Washington Post database that tracks fatal police shootings since 2015, which found 20% of those fatal interactions resulted in the death of an individual suffering from mental illness. 

Dr. Stephen Strakowski, a professor at the University of Texas and Indiana University, says it was “very predictable” that the U.S. is in this position for underfunding mental health and overfunding institutions of incarceration.

“When you're over investing in your criminal justice, warehousing system, with jails and prisons, and under investing in your mental health system, that people with mental illness would land at the place where there's more investment. And that's what's happened,” Strakowski told Spectrum News. “This is not a new problem, it's not unique to any state, and we've continued to manage mental health by managing crises, often with the legal system, instead of the medical system.”

“I think any bill that will help support that financially, will be meaningful,” Strakowski added. “The rural counties don't have the money, and so we really need to find a way to support investment. I think it's positive in the sense there has been a lack of national leadership and policy on managing mental illness across the United States. And so anything that starts to do that is a step in the right direction.”

In recent years, mental health has become a more bipartisan issue. Last month, a bipartisan group of senators launched the chamber’s mental health caucus. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has already signed on to be the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate; Porter said they are looking for a Senate Republican co-sponsor to help shepherd it through the chamber.

"I’m glad to reintroduce the Mental Health Justice Act to make it easier for trained mental health professionals to respond to a mental health or substance use crisis," said Senator Warren in a statement. "Safety should mean taking care of people in our communities who face mental health issues, not criminalizing them or leaving them to a police system that is not equipped to provide the care they need.”

Reps. Ayanna Pressely, D-Mass., Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., and Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif. have signed on as co-leads on the bill, and 33 other House members have signed on to cosponsor the legislation. 

For professionals like Strakowski, who has been a psychiatrist for over three decades, he says this moment is a turning point for the mental health discussion in this country, though he is cautiously optimistic about legislation moving through Capitol Hill.

“My worry is that the United States has shown a tendency around big issues to have a very short attention span,” he said. “My credit to this bill, now's the time to strike because something else will distract us two years from now. So I would very much like to see us move at this point in history. And I think we're more aligned than we've ever been.”