WASHINGTON -- Mental-health advocates from coast to coast are seizing upon a rare and unexpected chance to stem the years-long tide of budget cuts and plug gaps in the nation's patchwork mental-health-care system.
In the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., lawmakers from both parties, along with notoriously tight-belted governors, are pushing to restore some of the estimated $4.3 billion in mental-health spending that was slashed from state budgets between 2009 and 2012. At the same time, they are weighing new initiatives, such as adding beds at psychiatric hospitals and improving treatment for inmates with behavioral disorders.
A year that could have brought another round of thinning resources and a spot far down the priority list of policymakers is shaping up quite differently in some statehouses.
In Minnesota, for example, legislators are seeking more resources for mental-health treatment programs in the state's schools. In Pennsylvania, a Republican state representative is spearheading the effort to reclaim $84 million in funding that had been slashed from the most recent state budget, saying that adequate treatment is key to safer communities, "not a luxury." In Virginia and other states, lawmakers have proposed funding "mental-health first aid" training to help teachers and first responders better spot people in need of help.
Wisconsin's famously budget-conscious governor, Republican Scott Walker, this month proposed a nearly $30 million boost to mental-health spending in his budget, including funding for a program that allows counties to provide mental-health services to people in their homes.
The wave of new attention, however, has not come without risk and worry. For starters, the enthusiasm among mental-health advocates has been tempered by the fact that their issues attracted a national spotlight only in the wake of another horrific mass killing. Some worry that the episode has deepened the mistaken impression that mentally ill people are more prone to violence, though research shows that is rarely the case.
"Mental-health care, in a time of national crisis, is easy to get behind," said J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor at the University of California at San Diego. But that alone is not enough, he said. "It's much easier to pass laws than to provide the funding to support those laws."
Another problem: "There is a danger you write bad policy," Mr. Meloy said.