In the aftermath of a particularly awful year of gun violence, capped by the horrific Sandy Hook shooting, the federal government, as well as individual states, is acting quickly to tighten up gun control in the United States. Many advocates are hailing this as a long-needed measure, arguing that with decreased access to weapons, rampage violence will be reduced. Some, however, are concerned about whether the gun control policies being hastily passed by legislatures are actually going to be effective.
One such example has come up in New York, which just mandated that mental health professionals report anyone they suspect as likely to do violence (though Dr. Art Caplan noted in a radio interview that mental health professionals have been reporting safety concerns regarding patients for decades). Such reports can trigger a law enforcement investigation and seizure of any firearms. On the surface, some might think this policy is a good idea, despite the fact that statistics on mental illness and violence really don’t support the thesis that mental illness is the problem when it comes to rampage violence.
However, this legislation could actually be really bad news. Mental health professionals point out that it’s actually quite difficult to predict a risk of violence, and in studies, even those with special training aren’t necessarily very good at determining which patients are likely to harm themselves or others. And that phrase, “special training,” is also important: the law applies to all mental health professionals, but learning to assess patients for violent tendencies actually takes years of training and practical experience. Even then, there are no “precise signs” indicative of a risk of violence, says Kaplan. Psychiatric professionals need access to patient records, lots of time to review the available information, and interaction with other professionals who’ve treated the patient to adequately predict risks.
Under legal pressure, there’s a risk that mental health professionals could over report to reduce the risk of lawsuits and legal penalties.
Demanding that inexperienced and untrained mental health professionals report patients they think are dangerous is not a good idea. And not just because it could potentially abridge some rights and freedoms for mentally ill people. It could also make people reluctant to seek medical assistance for mental health conditions, and it could increase the risk of false positives resulting in costly investigations and the potential for forced institutionalisation, medication and other interventions. These can be traumatic for patients and aren’t necessarily productive.
Worst of all, “maybe we’ll prevent an incident or two,” said Barry Rosenfeld, an expert on the subject, highlighting the overall effectiveness of the law in an NPR interview. For all the costs associated with implementation and enforcement, it’s not likely to save many lives. While the temptation to blame mentally ill people for gun violence is easy to give in to for many people, it shouldn’t become a policy priority, because it distracts from the real, larger issues. Critically, it also positions mental health as a public safety issue rather than a public health one, and it increases the stigma associated with mental health conditions. This doesn’t lead to a safer society for mentally ill people or their loved ones.
Better treatment for mentally ill people is a critical need, and such laws don’t meet shortfalls in funding, training and options for mental health treatment. Mental health gun laws also don’t address the larger issue: there are a lot of guns in a lot of hands in the United States, and not all of those hands are responsible.
Another expert, Steven Hoge, also interviewed by NPR, boils it down to the bottom line:
“The biggest risk for gun violence is possession of a gun. And there’s no evidence that the mentally ill possess guns or commit gun violence at any greater rate than the normal population.”
Photo credit: StooMathiesen