Indiana Catholic Conference
Victoria Arthur
March 18, 2023 // National

Mental Health Crisis Response Bill Key Priority For ICC

Indiana Catholic Conference
Victoria Arthur

As lawmakers debate the next state budget, the Indiana Catholic Conference is among the chorus of voices calling for full funding of a measure that would extend a lifeline to people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The ICC recently joined numerous faith leaders in a “Call for Care” rally in support of Senate Bill 1, which would transform emergency response procedures in mental health crisis situations. Supporters consider it a potentially lifesaving measure that would more properly and safely address the needs of those in extreme distress due to mental illness or addiction.

“People dealing with mental health issues are vulnerable and are deserving of dignity,” said Angela Espada, Executive Director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “Too often in our communities, we have seen people suffering from mental health crises responded to by police, who are usually not equipped or trained to handle these types of situations. Sadly, many of these crises have ended in the death of the person who needed assistance.”

For Espada, who spoke at a news conference held in conjunction with the March 7 rally at the Statehouse, this reality is deeply personal. She has a connection to the family of Herman Whitfield, a 39-year-old pianist and composer, who died at his parents’ home in Indianapolis last April after suffering a mental health crisis and being tased by police.

“Had an appropriate response system been available, there is very little doubt in my mind that he would be alive today,” Espada said.

Backed by the governor’s office and a growing coalition of Hoosiers, Senate Bill 1 would boost local implementation of the 988 national suicide and crisis hotline launched last year and continue building an infrastructure to provide for the mental health needs of people in the most urgent situations. The legislation would establish mobile crisis intervention teams that are trained to respond to mental health emergencies across Indiana’s 92 counties and fund additional community-based mental health clinics statewide.

The measure, which passed the Senate unanimously in February, is now moving through the House. Despite the broad base of support for the bill, advocates are alarmed because the legislation was stripped of its proposed $30 million funding during deliberations in the Senate.

But the author of the bill, Sen. Michael Crider (R-Greenfield), remains confident that the measure will not only make it through the General Assembly, but receive the funding required to implement it.

“Right now, everything looks good, and I don’t anticipate any problems at all in the House with the bill moving,” Crider said. “The thing that most people are concerned about is the finance portion of it, which will be an end-to-the-process decision and part of the budget discussions.”

This is a long session of the General Assembly, held every other year and culminating in the passage of the state’s two-year budget, which originates in the House. Crider explained that because his bill originated in the Senate but had a budget appropriation attached, it was not unusual for the proposed funding to be removed and tabled for the budget discussions late in the legislative cycle.

“I’m committed to be in there fighting for all the budget we can get,” said Crider, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “This has been my mission for the last decade, and it’s encouraging to see us get to this point. I’m very, very hopeful that we’re going to get substantial changes made for the people of Indiana.”

The lawmaker has seen first-hand the pressing need for improved mental health services in the state. In a former role as Director of Disaster Management and Security at Hancock Regional Hospital in Greenfield, Crider frequently had to calm down crisis situations in the emergency room.

“This is an issue that captured my attention, and I knew there had to be improvement in that space,” he said. “I firmly believe that if we can get help to people when they need it, they won’t end up in our emergency rooms and in our county jails.”

Crider credits the faith community and the other wide-ranging coalition of advocates who continue to support Senate Bill 1.

“I have not had a bill in my 11 sessions where so many groups are as engaged as they are on this issue,” he said. “The faith-based community has come along with this effort in a tremendous way, along with leaders in education, business, law enforcement, and so many other areas to get this bill successfully passed and funded. It’s really impressive, and I am thrilled with that.”

The March 7 “Call for Care” rally, sponsored by the advocacy group Faith in Indiana, drew leaders from a cross-section of Christian faiths as well as the Jewish community.

“Regardless of the particular religion, one of the common themes that day was respecting the dignity of the person,” Espada said.

That pillar of Catholic social teaching underscores all of the ICC’s priorities at the Statehouse. As is the case during every session of the General Assembly, Espada explained that the ICC supports or opposes proposed legislation according to the long history of Catholic social teaching.

In addition to Senate Bill 1, the ICC is tracking other legislation of interest in this second half of the 2023 session, anticipated to conclude at the end of April. The ICC strongly supports the school choice expansion elements of House Bill 1001, the budget bill, which likely will face challenges in the Senate.

House Bill 1009, backed by the ICC and numerous other advocates, would allow a court order to require a father to pay for half of pregnancy and childbirth expenses. The measure, authored by Rep. Elizabeth Rowray (R-Yorktown), passed the House almost unanimously and is now moving through the Senate.

Some bills have stalled at the Statehouse, including Senate Bill 248, which would have provided undocumented immigrants in Indiana with legal driving privileges — a move that supporters maintain would offer both economic and public safety benefits. Despite a coalition of allies that included the ICC and other advocates, law enforcement officials and business leaders, the measure did not advance past the Senate appropriations committee.

“It got further along than it did in prior years,” Espada said. “In the 20-plus other states that offer this, it’s financially a boon to the state. Although there are up-front costs with issuing and tracking the driving cards, we know the state would get that money back over time. It’s disappointing that the Senate committee couldn’t see the benefit in that.”

But the stoppage of another measure is welcome news for the ICC and other advocates concerned about the most vulnerable in Indiana. House Bill 1547 would have expanded certain subprime loans and allowed a new high-interest loan product on the market that the ICC deemed “predatory.”

“A lot of allies were working against this legislation,” said Alexander Mingus, Associate Director of the ICC. “We are grateful to the Catholic faithful who contacted their lawmakers, and we call on everyone to stay engaged during this next critical phase of the legislative session.”

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