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President Barack Obama, accompanied by children who had written him about gun violence, signs executive orders that aim to curb gun violence.
President Barack Obama, accompanied by children who had written him about gun violence, signs executive orders that aim to curb gun violence.
Photo credit: AP photo

Mental health care part of Obama plan to fight gun violence

By Jessica Zigmond
Posted: January 16, 2013 - 4:30 pm ET

Surrounded by schoolchildren, President Barack Obama on Wednesday introduced his plan to reduce gun violence (PDF) that includes increasing access to mental health services and conducting federal scientific research on gun-violence causes and prevention.

The president's announcement comes one month after a lone gunman murdered 20 children and six school staffers in a shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. In addition to 23 executive actions, the plan includes recommendations that Congress act swiftly to pass legislation that would require a universal background check for all gun sales, restore a ban on military-style assault weapons and limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.

The plan is based on recommendations from Vice President Joe Biden and some Cabinet members who have met with stakeholders in the past month to develop a strategy that would reduce gun violence. Broad in scope, the administration's proposal also calls for hiring resource officers and developing emergency plans in schools, ensuring that mental health professionals understand their options for reporting acts of violence, and directing federal research on the causes of gun violence and the best ways to reduce it.

“And while year after year, those who oppose even modest gun-safety measures have threatened to defund scientific or medical research into the causes of gun violence, I will direct the Centers for Disease Control to go ahead and study the best ways to reduce it—and Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds,” the president said at the White House. “We don't benefit from ignorance. We don't benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.” Specifically, the administration has asked Congress to provide $10 million to the CDC to conduct additional research in this area.

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Healthcare providers, insurers, educators and mental health professionals all have a place in the administration's strategy to prevent gun-related tragedies such as the ones in Newtown; Aurora, Colo.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Virginia Tech. For instance, the plan includes a new initiative intended to reach about 750,000 young people through programs that detect mental illness in individuals and refer them for treatment. Called Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), the effort would provide $15 million in “Mental Health First Aid” funding to train teachers and adults who interact with children and young adults to identify and respond to mental illness.

It would also provide $40 million to help school districts work with law enforcement, mental health agencies and other organizations to make sure children with mental health problems get the treatment they need. Addressing a shortage of mental health professionals, the administration's strategy proposes an additional $50 million in stipends and tuition reimbursement to train social workers, counselors and other mental health professionals.

And the administration said it would soon make final regulations to the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which requires group health plans that offer mental health services to cover them at the same level as medical services. The administration also said it would send a letter to state health officials that ensures state Medicaid programs comply with mental health parity requirements.

Meanwhile, the president's plan noted that there has been public confusion about whether federal law prohibits healthcare providers from reporting threats of violence to the proper authorities.

“We are also offering guidance (PDF) to health providers across the country, letting them know that they can talk to their patients about gun safety, and that there is no legal barrier to contacting law enforcement when patients make violent threats,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement following the president's announcement.

Public health advocates were quick Wednesday to applaud the administration on its gun-reform package.

“The issue of gun violence is complex and deeply rooted, which is why we must take a comprehensive public health approach to ensuring our families and communities are safe,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said in a statement. “We must place a renewed emphasis on improving gun injury and violence research and expanding access to mental health services to those who most need it,” he continued. “Today's proposal represents a real opportunity to make long-last progress on reducing gun violence. Now, Congress must get to work.”

That will be a challenge on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress are preparing for some significant budget battles in the next few months. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Gun Violence Task Force, said Wednesday that his panel will study the president's gun-reform proposals in the weeks ahead.

“Executive action can and should be part of the process, and many of the executive actions announced today will have a positive influence on reducing gun violence,” Thompson said in a statement. “Now it's time for Congress to step up and do what needs to be done to save lives.”

Thompson's task force will develop a set of policy recommendations to reduce gun violence that the group is expected to release in February.

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