By Ron Honberg, NAMI Director of Policy and Legal Affairs
In the aftermath of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., it's important to consider whether changes to America's gun laws are needed. The focus should be on steps to keep highly lethal weapons out of the hands of dangerous individuals, whether or not they have a mental illness.
One in four Americans experience a mental health problem in any given year. One in 17 lives with a serious mental illness. Most are not violent, and most violent crimes are committed by people who do not have mental illness.
States are supposed to report to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) people "committed to any mental institution" or "adjudicated as a mentally defective." The latter term is both highly offensive and confusing. Some states interpret it as needing to report people committed to a psychiatric hospital for more than 30 days. Others report those brought in for emergency assessments.
Now, some have proposed broadening the law to include anyone who seeks mental health treatment, or all people who have been in psychiatric hospitals, whether voluntarily or involuntarily.
Either approach would be counterproductive. Broadening the criteria would deter people from seeking treatment, the last thing anyone should want.
Clear guidance to states on reporting is a sensible idea. But more concern should be placed on a bigger problem: It's far easier to buy a gun in the U.S. than to access mental health care. We rally around people diagnosed with other conditions, such as diabetes or cancer. We shun people with symptoms of possible mental illness and erect barriers to treatment
Since 2008, America has cut $4 billion from its already ailing public mental health system. Many community mental health programs have disappeared, and more than 4,000 psychiatric hospital beds have been eliminated. For too many, even basic mental health care is illusory. People can't get help until they go into crisis.
There is some hope. Inclusion of mental health care in the Affordable Care Act is a good first step. More is needed, including mental health screening, early intervention, evidence-based mental health treatment and services, and family education and support.
It is time to make mental health care a continual national priority, not just in the days after tragedies.
Ron Honberg is the national director of policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.