After both of the tragic mass murders of 2012 — the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — mental illness was quickly brought to the table as answers were sought as to why someone would commit such seemingly senseless crimes.
As the debate over gun control continues, so too does discussion about the role mental illness plays in it. NBC News reports experts saying the weight of adding mental illness into the mix might carry some unintended consequences. As NBC put it in its article headlined “Are You Too Sick to Own a Gun,” this includes everything “from gun owners avoiding mental health treatment to therapists feeling compelled to report every patient who expresses a violent thought.”
The new law regarding gun ownership passed in New York could result in both of these scenarios.
“There’s one group of people who are gun owners who may reasonably or unreasonably think, ‘I’m not going anywhere near a mental health person, because if they misinterpret something I say as an indication I’m going to hurt myself or someone else, they’re going to report me and take away my guns,’” Paul Applebaum, director of the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry at Columbia University, told NBC News.
Therapists who don’t report patients that express violent thoughts could face criminal charges themselves if something were to happen later, which as a result might lead to over reporting. News 8 out of Idaho Falls reported a therapist also citing the potential problem of over reporting mental illness with new laws:
What worries [mental health counselor Quinn] Thibodeau is new attention on mental health professionals possibly leading to over-reporting. He said a patient’s behavior should be reported to law enforcement only when there are grounds to do so.
“If they seem like they’re going to do something drastic based on the context of what they’re saying,” said Thibodeau.
Thibodeau said the professional code of ethics requires a viable threat by a patient to be reported to the intended victim of that threat, and law enforcement.
NBC pointed out that Obama has cited the need for improved reporting of mental health to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Given that only seven states account for 98 percent of those prevented from owning guns for mental health reasons, it’s clear there are holes in reporting.
Here’s more data from an article by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns:
The data, through April 2012, shows that in Colorado, more than 11,000 mental health records weren’t reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. The study ranks the fifty states by identifying the five states that have submitted the most mental health records when controlling for population, and then comparing the rest of the country to those standards. In those top five states — Virginia, California, Washington, Michigan and New York — 830 records per 100,000 residents have been submitted. Colorado, the report says, would have to submit 11,192 records to join the top ranking states.
Colorado conducted 336,296 gun background checks in 2011 using this very incomplete data according to the study, which notes that 30,885 mental health records have been submitted in the state. Colorado falls somewhere in the middle compared to states across the country and is certainly doing a much better job reporting than the states at the bottom, which in some cases have submitted as few as three records.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Joanne Schwartz, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, said according to the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition. “These recent mass shootings…really draws the focus to mental illness and the need to track it and report it effectively.”