“Mental illness is one of the few illnesses in this country that we still can’t talk about,” Congressman Ron Barber said Saturday afternoon during a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) event in Sierra Vista. Barber applauds NAMI’s efforts to eliminate the stigma attached to mental illness and said he has been working to elevate public awareness about mental illness, along with the need to restore funding for programs to help those seeking services offered through the mental health care system.

Barber is striving to achieve a much stronger mental health care system among communities across the country and is pushing for funding to support public education to help identify and treat those with mental illness. He has been instrumental in forming a Mental Health Task Force that will advise him on mental health policy, with a focus on prevention and treatment of mental illness as well as violence prevention. Barber has been meeting with law enforcement, educators and veterans’ groups to gain a better understanding of the challenges in identifying mental illness symptoms and the appropriate responses to help those who are at risk.

The Congressman’s visit in Sierra Vista comes on the heels of the tragic naval yard shooting where 12 people died and several others were wounded. He also spoke of the 2011 shooting in Tucson where six people died and he and Congresswoman Gabriele Giffords, along with 11 others, were injured. Following that shooting, Barber said he learned more about the man responsible for the tragic incident and how people who knew him had noticed symptoms that could have served as warning signs that something was very wrong. “But he was undiagnosed and untreated before that tragic day,” the congressman said.

Barber is the vice chair of the congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force where he advocates common-sense efforts to combat gun violence through background checks and by placing limits on high capacity magazines, in addition to pushing for the necessary funding for enhanced mental health care.

While Barber emphasized that 95 percent of those who suffer from mental illness are not violent, he does believe that untreated and undiagnosed serious mental illness is the underlying cause in a number of the mass shootings in recent months.

He has introduced a Mental Health First Aid Act - incorporated into the Mental Health Task Force – designed to provide training that will help communities identify and respond to signs of mental illness. “We have failed to give the mental health care needs of Americans due attention for too long, and we have paid too high a price for this neglect,” Barber has stated. “Mental Health First Aid would provide the funding to train those to recognize individuals who exhibit the symptoms of mental illness and then respond appropriately to help those individuals,” Barber said. People who are currently going through training know and understand what they’re seeing and what actions to take to help those suffering from mental illness, Barber said.

The Congressman’s push for communitywide training is a proactive step that NAMI strongly endorses. In addition, the organization hopes to see crisis intervention teams in all communities, where police, mental health professionals, educators and other partners are involved. Along with that, NAMI believes all communities should have mental health courts capable of providing treatment for those who have committed non-violent offenses and are struggling with mental illness.

In addition to community support and training, Barber has fought to restore funding for mental health counselors in public schools and is co-sponsoring a bill with that purpose. He feels school counselors are vital to all public schools and is deeply troubled that counselors have been eliminated in several school districts because of tough funding cuts to education.

Veterans are another part of Barber’s mental health focus. He wants to ensure there is adequate help for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. “We do not want these veterans to go through what Vietnam War veterans did,” Barber said. Vietnam War veterans make up the highest percentage of homelessness in this country, he added. Providing another disturbing statistic, Barber said there is an average of 22 suicides a day among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. “I am doing everything I can to help these veterans,” he said. 

Mental illness is treatable, Barber said toward the conclusion of his remarks. “We have a whole range of medications and we are learning more all the time about what we can do to help people who are suffering from mental illness.”

Removing the stigma attached to mental illness is considered one of the biggest steps in encouraging sufferers to seek the treatment they need. In addition, NAMI believes much needs to be done to streamline the process for those seeking assistance with mental health issues, along with providing appropriate, easily accessible resources, all considered vital components for successful outcomes.

“Too often, the response to people experiencing psychiatric crisis in the United States bears little resemblance to the response given other medical conditions,” says Michael Fitzpatrick, NAMI executive director.” People do not know where to turn for help. Treatment is unavailable or not provided until an emergency occurs.” 

NAMI is a nonprofit organization that represents millions of Americans whose lives are impacted by mental illness. The local chapter, NAMI SAEZ (Southeastern Arizona), based out of Sierra Vista, serves Cochise, Graham, Greenlee and Santa Cruz counties. Located at 4755 Campus Drive in the SEABHS building in Sierra Vista, the local NAMI chapter can be contacted by calling (520) 459-3228. 

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