Events including the recent tragedy in Newtown have brought a sense of urgency and visibility to the need to improve and strengthen the mental health care system for our nation’s children and youth. In response to Newtown, the Administration took on the charge of developing a comprehensive strategy to combat gun violence in America – including improving services for the mentally ill – and the Senate attempted to pass gun control legislation. That effort stalled, and it is unlikely that we will see a call for another gun control vote although there have been rumblings of an effort to revive it. While the future of gun control legislation is uncertain, Congress has an opportunity to act now to strengthen mental health programs for our nation’s children and youth.

Today, First Focus Campaign for Children, in partnership with over 50 other national and state-based advocacy organizations, sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell, voicing support for the Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act (S. 689), and asking for a final Senate floor vote to be scheduled for this legislation so it can progress to the House.

The Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act addresses many of our children and youth’s unmet mental health needs by containing several provisions that reauthorize already existing federal programs, as well as supports new efforts to develop programs and provide services through schools, college campuses, hospitals, and other community environments.

For example, it amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) by allowing use of grant funds under section 4121 for school-based mental health partnerships, as well as promoting the creation of prevention efforts such as positive behavioral interventions, identifying students in need of such services, and linking them to the appropriate ones. It also requires a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the utilization of mental health services for children, as well as reauthorizes the National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative (NCTSI) so that the current national network of child trauma centers can continue to operate and collect, analyze, and report data to inform evidence-based treatments and services.

Now is an opportune time to push mental health legislation. Just this week, the White House held a National Conference on Mental Health, bringing together advocates, elected officials and faith leaders in an effort to increase awareness of mental illness and discuss ways to improve care for those struggling with mental illness. President Obama spoke at the event, discussing mental health in connection with the administration’s gun-control agenda.

While we wait for Congress to act, States have taken on the charge of improving mental health systems. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about 24 states have introduced targeted legislation this year. These bills typically aim to boost funding, broaden the rules for court-ordered treatment or commitment, or put in place duty-to-warn standards for mental health professionals to report patients who could be a threat to themselves or others.

Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and three quarters by age 24, yet only 20 percent of children with identified mental illness receive treatment. We have to do better. The Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act is an important step in the right direction. Congress should take on the challenge of improving our mental health system and now is a fitting time to do just that.