Commentary: We must help those with mental illness

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Let's take a moment this month to consider some facts: 1 in 5 children have a diagnosable mental health disorder. One in 4 adults experience a mental health disorder in a given year, and a staggering 1 in 17 adults live with severe mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, major depression or schizophrenia.

That's in the general population. What about our returning veterans?

Of the 1.7 million veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, 20%, or roughly 340,000 men and women, suffer from severe psychiatric wounds — almost double the combined populations of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. We have an obligation to make sure that these individuals do not go untreated.

Untreated mental illness places undue, and possibly unsustainable, stress on our local social service agencies, courts, jails and police. As residents, it is vital that we take a leadership role and express our support for more effective policies in order to bridge the gap in mental health services for our veterans and the greater community.

The Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act (JMHCA) is a piece of bipartisan legislation, introduced in both houses of Congress earlier this year. If passed, this legislation would expand funding to our mental health and veterans courts, focus on critical reentry support services such as housing, counseling, job training and job placement assistance, and provide increased mental health training in the police academies. Most critically, it will bring the duel resources of reliable funding and organizational attention to address a social issue of pressing concern to everyone.

A timely, well-drafted and broadly supported bill, the JMHCA would provide for organizational resources and critical funding to agencies, such as the Orange County Sheriff's Department and the O.C. courts system. It would enable community providers to develop and expand their existing (and proven) programs.

Join the American Legion and the National Assn. of Police Organizations and write to your local member of Congress in support of the JMHCA.

This legislation will provide funding that will enable our criminal justice system and community service providers to more effectively deal with mental illness. It will provide necessary services for our deserving veterans. It will reduce crime and save money. The JMHCA deserves your attention and support.

MEGAN KLINK HARLESS works for Working Wardrobes in Costa Mesa. She is pursuing a master's in social work at USC.

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