Experts and lawmakers scrutinize taxpayer dollars spent on mental health programs

MGN Online

With the recent mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, the spotlight is shining yet again on the way the U.S. deals with mental illness, as experts and lawmakers debate the issue.

While billions of dollars are allocated for this purpose, some are now taking a critical look at just how the money is being spent, and just how much it's actually helping.

One taxpayer watchdog group is asking why the government agency charged with tackling substance abuse and mental health is publishing children's books, spending $8,500 on a painting or funding so-called wellness programs that encourage line dancing and drinking smoothies.

"If we're going to spend that much money let's make sure it goes to the people that need it, not the people that will have their stress alleviated mildly by consuming a smoothie in the afternoon," said Brandon Arnold, executive VP of the National Taxpayers Union.

Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill share those concerns, looking at making changes to programs they call wasteful.

"When you spend $426,000 on a website with animated characters for sing along songs to improve the self-esteem of three-year-olds when you could be using that in a community to help people - that's wrong," said Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.)

He is the sponsor of a bill that looks to improve mental health services across the country.

The bulk of the money is distributed through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, known as SAMHSA, which defended its programs, calling those children's books and games steps that "caring adults can take to help young children develop the positive behaviors and social skills that can help them avoid substance abuse as they grow older."

But their child development website has been taken down and the agency acknowledged it needs updating.

What also needs updating, according to Arnold, are federal policies on just how taxpayer money is spent.

"The burden really needs to lie on Congress to exercise oversight, to turn off that spigot of funds when it's not being used in the taxpayer interest" he said.

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