It’s become a familiar pattern – a mass shooting occurs and there is a national debate about gun violence and mental health. Public officials, celebrities, and political pundits all weigh in, touting their solutions to the gun violence epidemic. While many of these solutions are related to firearms themselves, the conversation tends to focus on the failings of our nation’s mental health system. This is a critical and necessary conversation, however, consistently hearing mental health and gun violence in the same sentence can only act to further stigmatize individuals living with mental illness. According to a poll done by the Public Religion Research Institute, 30 percent of the American people believe that the most important thing that could be done to prevent mass shootings is to provide better mental health screening and support.
This is why, when I heard President Obama took executive action yesterday on gun violence with some measures related to mental health, I was justifiably hesitant.
In addition to actions expanding background checks, improving public safety, and funding gun safety technology, the executive orders call for some important steps toward mental health care reform. Such steps include a proposal for a $500 million investment in the mental health system, some of which will be dedicated to improving the mental health workforce in order to provide better access to quality care.
Exciting as this may be, the executive orders also call on the Social Security Administration to make information regarding mental health status more readily available to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Additionally, the orders remove some barriers set by Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 to state reporting of relevant mental health information to NICS. Such aspects of the executive orders are troubling, as they can potentially be used to discriminate against individuals with mental illness who are NOT a danger to themselves or others. However, it is notable that the administration is careful to state that those with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than to commit violence, which is a vital message for the American people to hear. Despite the perception that individuals with mental illness are prone to violent behavior, research has shown that only three to five percent of all violence can be attributed to mental illness.
Ultimately, the inclusion of mental health measures in these executive orders is a promising step toward a more robust system of mental health care. I can only hope, though, that as we move toward reform we will start having these conversations beyond reacting to horrific tragedies.
The Foundation does not necessarily endorse the positions expressed by its grantees, fellows, staff, and/or other partners. The Foundation does endorse an open and honest debate about the limitations of mental health care delivery in the US.