A mourner pays his respects at one of the makeshift memorials for the Sandy Hook elementary shooting. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Connecticut is launching two task forces to examine mental health treatment in the state, following last year’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 children and six adults dead. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is leading one task force, and the legislature is heading up the second.
A more focused conversation about how people with mental illness get access to care and how to identify people who could become violent is also occurring in other states and at the federal level, as lawmakers look for strategies to combat the series of mass shootings that have rocked the nation in recent years.
A number of rampage shooters have had documented or suspected mental health problems, and policy makers are seeking better means of intervention to prevent disasters before they happen. However, advocates caution that any actions taken should be measured to avoid finger pointing or stigmatization of people with mental illness as a whole.
“One of the things we think has to happen is that we focus on behavior and not diagnosis,” says Jan Van Tassel, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, a non-profit that provides services to low-income adults with psychiatric disabilities.
Federal law already prohibits sale of firearms by licensed dealers to people who have been legally “adjudicated mental defective” or have been committed to an institution, although the database used to check people’s histories is missing millions of disqualifying records as it is, and purchasers who buy from private dealers don’t have to pass a background check anyway.
Van Tassel points out that many people who are disqualified could pose no risk of violence whatsoever, while there are others who could be at risk but have remained off the radar. “There are people with troubling behaviors that don’t have a major psychiatric illness, have never been hospitalized, and indeed may never have been in a treatment system,” the attorney says.
Mental health advocates worry about proposals that could lead to forcible medication or other reductions of the rights and freedoms of people with mental illness. “The bottom line is there are approaches that are just reactionary,” says Van Tassel. “And we certainly hope that we can stave those off and get more rational views to prevail.”
Searching for Answers
Other states are also seeking solutions on how to identify people who pose a risk of violence and keep guns away from them. Maryland recently released the report of their own study on mental health and gun access, which was commissioned last summer. Among the recommendations in the report:
Heightened reporting requirements for professionals who work with people who make threats of violence to themselves or others
Authorization for law enforcement to temporarily seize firearms from people who have made credible threats
Additional training for police and other professionals on effectively dealing with situations involving people with mental illness
The Washington State legislature is searching for funds to implement a 2010 law loosening standards for involuntary commitment of people who are deemed dangerous, while Virginia is exploring initiatives to expand access to mental health services and improve training for responders.
There is action on the federal level as well. One of President Obama’s steps aimed at reducing gun violence will be to finalize mental health parity regulations to ensure that health care plans provide adequate services, as well as the creation of “mental health first aid” programs for teachers.
The President’s plan also calls for thousands of mental health professionals to be trained to more effectively intervene with troubled youth.
“There’s a strong consensus that one of the things that needs to happen is to develop a much more comprehensive and supportive environment for identifying children and young adults who are having some problems,” Van Tassel says, “and effectively intervening in a way that is not going to stigmatize and not push people away.”