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Two months ago, many Americans had never heard of an obscure neurodegenerative disease that affects 30,000 people in the U.S. Now, thanks to the #IceBucketChallenge, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a household word. With that rise in awareness has come a stunning increase in private donations to ALS research and patient support – as of today, donors have contributed $88.5 million, compared to $2.6 million during this period last year.

The viral success of the #IceBucketChallenge – with everyone from George W. Bush to your own Facebook friends participating – illustrates just why raising awareness of a health condition is so critical to generating financial and political support.

That’s why I want to take a moment today to highlight how Members of Congress are fighting every day to raise awareness of mental health and substance use disorders – an effort that, like the #IceBucketChallenge, has resulted in concrete gains for prevention and treatment in our field.

For far too long, a shroud of silence and stigma surrounded mental health and substance use disorders. When Congress enacted major healthcare bills, they rarely included behavioral health. Now, Americans everywhere are having conversations like never before about these conditions, and legislators from every state are realizing the importance of policy solutions that support prevention, treatment and recovery.

This legislative progress is due in no small part to the activities of the bipartisan Congressional Mental Health Caucus and the Congressional Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus. Together, the legislators that participate in these caucuses have championed important substance use and mental health legislation. They have sponsored congressional briefings to educate legislators and their staff on a range of behavioral health issues. They have hosted activities for May is Mental Health Month and Recovery Month in September. For example, this year in May, the Mental Health Caucus:

  • Hosted a briefing and panel for National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, highlighting the impact of trauma on positive youth development, systems of care, programs aimed at improving care coordination, and the service capacity of our current mental health system.
  • Sponsored a Native American Youth Mental Health Panel; and
  • Supported a Military Mental Health Caucus briefing for Military/Veteran Mental Health Awareness Day about the ongoing mental health crisis in the military and what is being done to address it.

Members of the two caucuses have also signed on to bills that would bolster our community behavioral health system and have urged their colleagues to do the same.

These activities have contributed to recent legislative successes such as the enactment of the Excellence in Mental Health Act and the appropriation of $15 million to support Mental Health First Aid training. They also highlight one of the greatest markers of progress we’ve seen over the last few years: the growing profile of mental health and addiction issues in Congress. By raising awareness of these conditions, the members of the Mental Health Caucus and the Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus have not only helped pass specific behavioral health bills, they have created an environment in which open dialogue about behavioral health is the norm.

The National Council thanks the co-chairs of the Mental Health Caucus: Reps. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) and Tim Murphy (R-PA) and the co-chairs of the Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus: Reps. Tim Ryan (D-OH), John Fleming (R-LA) along with its vice-chair, Paul Tonko (D-NY). We also thank each and every one of the members of these two important caucuses for their support of behavioral health. Thanks to the individual and combined efforts of these passionate legislators, we have seen a greater focus on behavioral health issues in this Congress than ever before – a focus that has translated into results and will continue to do so in the future.

As former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius said last fall, we still have a long way to go to bring mental illness out of the shadows. While we’re not planning to dump a bucket of ice on any lawmakers’ heads, the National Council pledges to continue our work with the Mental Health Caucus and the Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus – now and in the future – to advance our shared vision of a life in recovery for all Americans in need.

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