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TV Smart Talk - Guns and the Mentally Ill

Written by Nell McCormack Abom | Jan 17, 2013 10:00 AM

New York this week became the first state to address mental health issues in the wake of the Newtown school massacre last month that claimed 26 lives, including 20 children. Adam Lanza, the shooter who also killed himself and his mother, reportedly suffered from mental illness.  President Obama on Wednesday outlined his gun-control plan that also focuses on the mentally ill.  Join us tonight at 8 on Smart Talk as we discuss what is being done to treat mentally ill Pennsylvanians and ensure that those who pose a risk to themselves and others do not have access to weapons. Be part of the conversation by calling 1-800-729-7532, post a comment to this article, or to Facebook and Twitter.

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Our panel features Lynn Keltz, executive director of the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers' Association which advocates on behalf of Pennsylvanians with mental illness.  She urges lawmakers to "apply the laws equally to everyone. We don't want to curtail civil rights."  Dan Eisenhauer, administrator of the Dauphin County Mental Health/Intellectual Disabilities program, joins her.  He appeared earlier this week on Radio Smart Talk and detailed the tremendous challenges in delivering community mental health services. And Dr. Dale Adair, chief medical officer for the state mental hospital system operated under the Department of Public Welfare, will add his perspective.

Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law Tuesday new measures designed to improve government’s response to mental illness. The law requires mental health professionals to report to local mental health officials when they believe patients are “likely to engage in” violent behavior. Therapists who fail to report such patients are protected from prosecution if they acted in “good faith.”

It gives law enforcement the right to confiscate any firearm owned by a patient deemed to be dangerous. Gun owners must make their weapons inaccessible in homes where a resident has been involuntarily committed, convicted of a crime, or is the subject of an order of protection. Critics say the package of measures could drive mentally ill patients from seeking help.  They also contend it tramples on their constitutional rights and the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship.

If you think we have been down this path before, you are correct. After the Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007 that killed 33 people, Congress passed a law to cajole states to provide to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) the records of those who have been committed to mental institutions. Five years later, more than half the states have failed to provide mental health records. Pennsylvania is one of them. Reasons cited include privacy concerns and the incompatibility of federal and state computer databases.

Pennsylvania does bar those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution from buying or owning a gun. However, because the Commonwealth does not report that information to the NICS, a violent, mentally ill Pennsylvanian could go to another state to purchase a weapon.
Republican State Representative Todd Stephens of Montgomery County has pushed legislation to force the Pennsylvania State Police to send the information to the national background check system. PSP Commissioner Col. Frank Noonan says, as of January 15, all pertinent mental health records will be forwarded to federal officials for inclusion in the NICS database.

Determining who is just mentally ill and who is truly dangerous isn't always easy.  Advocates on both sides point out that only about 4 percent of violent crimes overall are committed by people with serious mental disorders. However, according to forensic specialists, that rate jumps to about 20 percent for rampage or serial killings.

Earlier this week on Radio Smart Talk, Democratic Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick said the community mental health system is “woefully inadequate” in addressing patients’ needs for services. He noted that just 5.6 percent of national health care funding goes to mental health programs. Funding cuts at the federal and state level trickle down to the counties where that treatment is delivered. Waiting lists are hundreds of patients deep for most levels of publicly funded mental health treatment. Patients in Dauphin County, for instance, have an eight-and-a-half-month wait for a general psychiatric evaluation.

All three guests on the program said they were surprised that there are not more violent incidents involving the mentally ill given the strain on the system and the sheer number of people needing help. That observation should be sobering to each of us.

We would love to hear your comments on mental health treatment and the threat of gun violence. Please submit a comment here, call in live at 8 to 1-800-729-7532, or post to Facebook and Twitter.

(This article has been updated to reflect the addition of Dr. Adair to the panel. And, here's a link to federal and state statutes governing firearms and the mentally ill.)

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Comments: 1

  • tmm img 2013-01-29 07:46

    Don’t utilize and victimize people with mental illness with promises of increased funding, supports, and more focus on treatment and prevention to add the sweetness to the equation of the desired changes to have greater gun control laws. How could any reasonable person disagree with wanting more services/funding and improvements to the mental health system?

    However in this case it only comes with strings attached that connect those funds with passage of stiffer gun control regulations. So we know what the real motive is.

    This disparity and underfunding of mental health is decades’ old and mental health advocacy groups like PMHCA, NAMI, MHA have known this. These groups see this recent media interest as way to reach a wider audience about their organization’s existence and mission however I wish they would not comment on topics or make connections beyond their expertise.

    SmartTalk would have done the viewer a great benefit if they had gotten a someone from the PA Mental Health and Justice Center of Excellence http://www.pacenterofexcellence.pitt.edu or someone from PA associated with the Treatment Advocacy Center http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/

    The Sandy Hook incident has resulted in the Dauphin County commissioner’s epiphany on mental health to which I am glad. I have mixed emotions – one glad he got it, two where has he been, three will it last?

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