My View: Issues surrounding mental health invading gun control debate
April 19, 2013
Like a plant breaking through a heap of destruction debris in search of daylight, legislation focusing on buttressing an inadequate mental health system is breaking through the detritus of the gun control debate. So far, Congress is in the process of watered down, stone walling, altering, any attempts to limit access to assault rifles, clips, and purchasers’ records in the controversy of what is and what is not protecting the second amendment. Colorado, bucked the trend somewhat with stronger gun control legislation. However, bipartisan agreements at both the Colorado legislature and Congress levels have now begun to zero in on the mental health factors that contributed to the mass shootings of Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Newtown, and Tucson.
The ability of the shooters to access guns were not the issues in most of these mass shooting tragedies. A common thread was the mental health of the perpetrators. For a period of time, mental health professionals were reluctant to jump on the bandwagon of gun control motivated legislation for fear that all who had a mental illness or autism diagnoses would be viewed as potential mass killers. The public’s sophistication seems to have rejected those blanket suppositions. There was also fear that there would be an expansion of requirements of professionals reporting who was not fit to buy a gun would result in unfairly harming patients’ rights. Currently, the process is one of a determination by a third party, a judge, and nothing in any proposed legislation so far changes that.
Recently, mental health organizations are realizing that there is a motivation provided by the mass shootings to fund better mental health treatment. An amendment to gun control legislation proposed by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D- MI) would provide for more mental health centers and a program to train teachers to spot problems of students and to make a referral. It has an excellent chance of receiving bi-partisan support. Governor Hickenlooper’s proposal to set up hotlines and more mental health centers is also progressing through the Colorado legislature.
Stabenow’s proposal addresses a very important point. What if these mass killers had psychiatric intervention in their childhood years? Many parents are quick to spot a problem child, but others are in denial or believe their kid “will grow out of it”, or like the Columbine shooters, their child became expert at hiding their intent from even their parents. What if the slasher of female student’s faces in a community college last week had gotten help earlier. The attacker admitted on arrest he had had a fantasy of committing such a deed since he was a child. What if Newtown shooter’s mother had realized the danger of including her son in her gun hobby?
Stabenow’s proposal to train teachers to spot problems of younger students early and to get them to a psychiatrist could be helpful. Our daughter, the teacher, and my husband the doctor rarely get such training in their professional lives. As our daughter said, it is now left to a teacher’s instincts to spot that a child is “not normal.”
The missing links are whether the parents take the advice of professionals seriously and can afford the follow-up. The parents in the Gabby Giffords shooter recognized their son had problems, but according to Gifford’s husband in a recent CNN interview, they lacked the ability to seek help. Sen. Stabenow proposes to expand Medicaid to provide treatment. The hotline proposed by Gov. Hickenlooper and the expanded mental health centers can help guide perplexed parents and teachers. Obamacare requires health insurance to cover mental health treatment and his proposed budget would provide $130 million for training teachers and providing more mental health centers. These are steps in the right direction that deserve our support.