This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Community Mental Health Act, which provides federal funds for mental health centers and research facilities devoted to the treatment of mental illness.

It was the last legislation President John F. Kennedy signed into law.

JFK encouraged a bold new approach to mental health treatment and established a vision of community acceptance and involvement.

A half-century later, new medications, psychotherapies, peer support and other advancing technologies have dramatically expanded the ability to treat a range of conditions. Advocacy, understanding and education have reduced stigma and encouraged individuals and families to seek treatment. And today, more people with mental illnesses get treated than at any other time in history — mostly in community settings.

Yet while science and public policy have taken giant leaps since 1963, as JFK stated, “the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won.” In fact, between 1990 and 2010, the worldwide incidence of mental illness went up by 38 percent, according to a 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study.

Patrick Kennedy, who has formed the Kennedy Forum to create a national conversation on mental health and addictions, said in a recent National Council for Behavioral Health blog article, “While we’ve provided community and family-based treatment for many, we haven’t been able to make it a reality for all who need it.”

“The new frontier is here, whether we seek it or not,” President Kennedy said 50 years ago.

In the new frontier, the Affordable Care Act is expanding mental health and addiction benefits to 62 million Americans. This will accelerate an already growing demand for behavioral health services and for care on request.

Behavioral health is becoming part of the new frontier of integrated medicine, which is driven by evidence-based studies and practices. We must embrace scientific advances and advocate for public policies that emphasize prevention and early identification.

Three bills before Congress would move mental health and addictions care into the new frontier.

• The Mental Health First Aid Act offers education and training to teachers, health workers, firefighters, police officers, emergency services personnel and other community members.

• The Excellence in Mental Health Act creates certified community behavioral health centers to better meet the needs of people currently being served, and those who will seek care as a result of coverage expansion and parity.

• The Behavioral Health IT Act provides financial incentives for the adoption and “meaningful use” of health information technology — the bedrock of improved care and coordination among practitioners — for mental health and addiction treatment providers and facilities.

Our communities must work together to achieve the full promise of the Community Mental Health Act. Please contact your U.S. representatives and senators to tell them you support these three crucial bills.

Neal Cash is president and chief executive officer of Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, the regional authority contracted by the Arizona Department of Health Services’ Division of Behavioral Health Services for funding and oversight of the behavioral health system in Southern Arizona. Contact him at