Michael Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, testifies on the shortcomings in treating those with psychological disorders at a House subcommittee hearing on mental illness and violence. (Alyssa Howard/Medill)

Michael Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, testifies on the shortcomings in treating those with psychological disorders at a House subcommittee hearing on mental illness and violence. (Alyssa Howard/Medill)

WASHINGTON – Severely mentally ill individuals who may be prone to violence too often can’t get the psychiatric help they need because of legal roadblocks and inadequate treatment options, witnesses told a House investigatory committee said Tuesday.

Held in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing explored possible flaws in the mental health care system such as the lack of available treatment, involuntary commitment statutes and HIPAA laws that restrict communication between parents and mentally ill children older than 18.

“This subcommittee is working to identify precisely what federal resources — in support of both research and care — are being devoted to those among the mentally ill who are most prone to violence: the severely mentally ill who are not being treated,”  said Chairman Tim Murphy, R-Pa.

Pete Early, a writer and the parent of a son with bipolar disorder, described the process of trying to get treatment for his son and noted that Virginia’s imminent danger law, and ones like it around the country, dictates that patients admitted against their will for mental illness must present an immediate threat to others.

“Why do we treat the head differently than we treat the body?” Early asked. “We tell our sons or daughters, ‘You’re sick, but we’re not going to help you until you become dangerous.’ In that scenario, you tell me, who is the crazy one?”

The panel of witnesses almost unanimously criticized HIPAA laws and regulations against committing mentally ill patients. HIPAA, passed by Congress in 1994, was designed to protect the privacy of patients and mandates that parents of adult patients are only allowed to speak to their children’s psychologists or psychiatrists if the patient signs a release. Early and others said it restricts parents in monitoring the treatment of their mentally ill adult children.

However, Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, the top Democrat on the committee, argued that medical professionals were perhaps applying the laws in unintended ways and stressed the statute’s importance.

“As someone who was here when we wrote HIPAA, I think it’s being misinterpreted,” she said.

Congress should move to help mentally ill and potentially violent individuals receive adequate care, Early said, but doing so should not come at the high cost of further demonizing people who suffer from these disorders. Early emphasized that policy proposals that would make lists of those who seek psychiatric help could do more harm than good in tackling the complex links between violence and mental illness.

“Because of Newtown, I think we’re finally taking action,” Early said. “But I would urge you to be very thoughtful and careful about the actions you take. When you make lists like this, you are creating stigma. You are saying, ‘These people are different, they’re dangerous and we need to make a list of them.’ That creates stigma. [The mentally ill] are your brothers and your sisters. They are Patrick Kennedy, they are Terry Bradshaw. They are not the enemy.”

Other parents stifled tears as they shared tragic stories of their kids’ suicide attempts and psychotic breakdowns.

Liza Long, author of the popular blog post, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” spoke to the subcommittee via Skype. Long, whose 13-year-old son has a mental illness that makes him susceptible to sudden blind rages, said it is a struggle to find an effective drug or treatment for his disorder.

Long’s experience jibed with many of the other parents in the room, who sometimes had no other recourse than to call the police on their children during breakdowns. Her son, Michael, was first put into the criminal justice database when he was 11.

“Michael is not a bad kid,” Long said. “Neither are the rest of the mentally ill kids in this country, but we put many of these children through the juvenile justice system.”

Only 40 percent of mentally ill Americans have access to medical treatment on a given day, according to witness Michael Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Removing barriers to getting help – like social preconceptions against the mentally ill and geographical disparities in mental health care – is a vital element of preventing future violent tragedies, he said.

“Stigma stops people from getting treatment,” Fitzpatrick said. “This hearing for me is all about access. … Effective treatment does exist, but it’s in pockets around the country. Lastly, it’s really about early intervention and early engagement with mentally ill individuals.”