Advocates and policy experts say bringing the gun control debate into discussions about reforming mental health treatment can endanger successful new behavioral-health policy.
“I think that the issues need to remain separate and they need to be talked about separately,” said Mental Health America CEO Paul Gionfriddo, adding that correlating illness with violence distorts the public's understanding of people with mental illness who are mostly nonviolent.
In fact, the mass shooting that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., is being investigated as an act of terrorism. Yet, many on Capitol Hill are turning to mental health reform, not gun control, when discussing ways to address the many mass shootings that have gripped the nation recently.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) brought up mental health reform multiple times last week when asked about gun violence. The bill he is pushing does not have direct language on guns.
Gionfriddo said he is glad to hear Ryan promoting mental health reform. But it would be better to look at the common roots of people who commit violent acts and those who are mentally ill. Addressing abuse, drug addiction, poverty and other social factors would help many people and result in fewer tragic outcomes, he said.
“It would help all these people if we did earlier prevention, earlier intervention,” he said. “That's the big picture.”
The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act from Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), which Ryan referenced last week, was advanced by the Energy and Commerce Committee's Health Subcommittee last month but has yet to be discussed by the full committee.
The bill was originally introduced in 2013 as a response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. It would promote integration of primary-care and behavioral-health services and address the shortage of inpatient psychiatric beds as well as research priorities. It does not mention gun control measures.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has introduced a bill that addresses both issues, but Democrats have raised concerns that it would actually make it easier for people with mental illness to access guns. The bill, supported by the National Rifle Association, would require a full hearing before denying someone access to guns based on mental illness.
Judy Feder, professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, said crises often bring policy change discussions to the forefront, but knee-jerk reactions and no-compromise rhetoric from either side can muddy the water for productive improvements.
“We have almost as much politics and framing as we do policy talk,” she said.
Mental health reform and gun control have never been completely separate issues, but the more they are tied to no-compromise rhetoric, the more difficult it gets to pass meaningful legislation, she said.
Mental health reform isn't sunk by these developments, though, Feder said, adding, “I think it doesn't wipe out bipartisan efforts on mental health.”