October 02, 2013

GlobalPhoto: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire/Handout via Reuters

During much of the debate that has flowed from the Newtown tragedy last year and most recently the Washington Navy Yard shootings, we have called for a stronger mental health care system.

NAMI also has never hesitated to speak out against the prejudice and discrimination that traditionally exists against people living with mental illness. In discussing violent tragedies and debating gun control, stigma runs high. Millions of Americans have a diagnosable mental illness . They are unfairly stigmatized after mass shootings.

That’s why the rhetoric of the National Rifle Association (NRA) hit an all-time low recently when its Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre, on the Sept. 22 broadcast of Meet the Press, declared: “If we leave these homicidal maniacs on the streets…they’re going to kill.” He equated individuals living with mental illness with “violent criminals and the evil-minded.”

Excess and extremism doesn’t help in building consensus for constructive action; it only divides and distracts attention from achieving real solutions. In an exchange published in USA Today, the newspaper's editorial board correctly noted that LaPierre simplistic rhetoric for committing people with mental illness “would prove wildly infeasible, legally impossible and hopelessly expensive.” That’s not to say that there aren’t improvements that can be made to the mental health care system—but none were mentioned in LaPierre's alternative view published in the same issue.

Although there is no evidence that he really understands what his opinion means, LaPierre’s view that the mental health care system is in “breakdown” is correct. Millions of Americans living with serious mental illness receive no treatment at all. Chronic funding reductions, a system that waits until people are in acute crisis before helping, barriers created by misguided interpretations of privacy laws and other factors have contributed significantly to suicides, homelessness and incarceration in jails and prisons instead of treatment.

Much worse than the stigma is the hypocrisy of the NRA’s position. If the association truly supported wanting to improve the mental health care system, it would be devoting resources and lobbying energies at the federal and state levels to help create a mental health care system that intervenes early and gets treatment and support to those in need, when they need it.

Is the NRA doing anything to protect Medicaid, advocate for acute inpatient beds, more assertive community treatment (ACT) teams, or more supportive housing programs for people living with mental illness? No, when it comes to the critical policy decisions that would truly improve the mental health system, the NRA is nowhere to be seen. Talk is cheap. Stigmatizing, prejudicial statements designed to deflect attention away from the gun debate are vile.

The Sacramento Bee recently published a story claiming that an “odd alliance” of pro-gun lobbyists and mental health advocates have found “a common purpose undermining efforts to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is no such alliance.

Until our nation builds and funds an accessible mental health system that provides effective and timely treatment, the tragic consequences of untreated mental illness will not be reduced.

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