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Gun Control: Treating The Symptoms

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As the nation struggles to understand the attack at the Boston Marathon, the debate over background checks for gun buyers has received more attention from gun control advocates as a result.  The left argues that stricter gun control laws might prevent tragedies such as the Boston bombings and the Newtown shooting.  The right points out that criminals, including the Boston bombers, do not adhere to the law and creating new gun control laws won’t persuade them to start.  Neither side gets to the heart of the issue and yet it is only there that two may find agreement.

Where there is a will there is a way.  At times this old proverb gives us hope for what can be achieved and, in times such as these, it is a sad truth.  If people have the desire to hurt, they will find a way; be it gun, plane, pressure cooker or the rope used for suicide.  What gives those who do harm the will is an intrinsic part of the investigation into the causation of violence, but in all cases the common denominator is mental health.

While healthcare in the United States is arguably the best in the world, in the area of mental health we have been found wanting.  For a time, mental health institutions effectively served the mentally ill in America.  However, somewhere along the way state hospitals took a serious downturn.  This resulted in horrid living conditions for patients, as exposed by Geraldo Rivera in the case of Willowbrook State School in 1972.  With the help of the Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963, the country began favoring deinstitutionalization.  As explained by Jeneen Interlandi in New York Times Magazine:

By treating the rest in the least-restrictive settings possible, the thinking went, we would protect the civil liberties of the mentally ill and hasten their recoveries. Surely community life was better for mental health than a cold, unfeeling institution.

From 1955 to 1985, 80% of hospital beds in state mental health facilities disappeared.  Those in need became responsible for reporting to community-based mental health care programs.  Families of the mentally ill were also tasked with caring for their relatives, despite lack of medical knowledge on how to meet their needs.  Meanwhile, the country’s population increased by 41% as did homelessness for many of the mentally ill.  In addition to finding themselves homeless, the mentally ill have often ended up in jail; forcing the criminal justice system to create an environment that caters to the needs of (ultimately) the minority of their population.

In addition to a lack of institutions, the costs of services have also contributed to the mental health problem in America.  According to one study, 45% of respondents cited cost as their reason for not receiving mental health services.  Cuts to mental health funding in state budgets have also been an issue, with funding decreasing by $1.8 billion during the recession.

Before the Boston incident, legislators were making bipartisan strides in tackling the insufficient attention being paid to mental health care in the country.  As long as the country continues to look to gun laws as the answer to the problem of violence, the underlying problems will not be solved.  The issue of mental health in America is one that both sides have proven they can work together on and it is there that what truly causes harm to our country can be resolved.

Among the bills focusing on mental health that have been introduced this session are:

The Mental Health First Aid Act of 2013 would authorize grants for mental health first aid training programs. Sponsored by Sen. Mark Begich [D-AK] with cosponsors: Ayotte, Kelly [R-NH],Bennet, Michael [D-CO]Blumenthal, Richard [D-CT]Blunt, Roy [R-MO]Coons, Chris [D-DE]Reed, John “Jack” [D-RI]Rubio, Marco [R-FL]Shaheen, Jeanne [D-NH]Stabenow, Debbie [D-MI]Tester, Jon [D-MT]Murphy, Christopher [D-CT]Udall, Mark [D-CO]Hirono, Mazie [D-HI]

The Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act seeks to reauthorize and improve the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2004. Sponsored by Sen. Alan “Al” Franken [D-MN] with cosponsors: Sen. Mark Begich [D-AK]Ayotte, Kelly [R-NH]Blunt, Roy [R-MO]Boxer, Barbara [D-CA]Brown, Sherrod [D-OH]Collins, Susan [R-ME]Coons, Chris [D-DE]Durbin, Richard [D-IL]Gillibrand, Kirsten [D-NY]Graham, Lindsey [R-SC]Hatch, Orrin [R-UT]Johanns, Mike [R-NE]Leahy, Patrick [D-VT]Portman, Robert “Rob” [R-OH]Reed, John “Jack” [D-RI]Schumer, Charles [D-NY]Shaheen, Jeanne [D-NH]Warren, Elizabeth [D-MA]Wyden, Ron [D-OR]Heller, Dean [R-NV]Klobuchar, Amy [D-MN]Blumenthal, Richard [D-CT]Schatz, Brian [D-HI]Whitehouse, Sheldon [D-RI]Grassley, Charles “Chuck” [R-IA]Moran, Jerry [R-KS]

The Excellence In Mental Health Act seeks to increase Medicaid funding to community mental health centers by $1.4 billion over 10 years. Sponsored by Sen. Debbie Stabenow [D-MI] with cosponsors: Begich, Mark [D-AK]Blunt, Roy [R-MO]Boxer, Barbara [D-CA]Collins, Susan [R-ME]Leahy, Patrick [D-VT]Reed, John “Jack” [D-RI]Rockefeller, John “Jay” [D-WV]Rubio, Marco [R-FL]Tester, Jon [D-MT]Murkowski, Lisa [R-AK]Coons, Chris [D-DE]Mikulski, Barbara [D-MD]Warren, Elizabeth [D-MA]Brown, Sherrod [D-OH]Cantwell, Maria [D-WA]Schumer, Charles [D-NY]Wyden, Ron [D-OR]Blumenthal, Richard [D-CT]

The Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act, which was recently added to gun control legislation, would reauthorize existing mental health programs and allows for new mental health care studies. Sponsored by Sen. Thomas “Tom” Harkin [D-IA] with cosponsors: Alexander, Lamar [R-TN]Baldwin, Tammy [D-WI]Bennet, Michael [D-CO]Enzi, Michael [R-WY]Franken, Alan “Al” [D-MN]Hagan, Kay [D-NC]Isakson, John “Johnny” [R-GA]Murkowski, Lisa [R-AK]Roberts, Pat [R-KS]Kirk, Mark [R-IL]Murphy, Christopher [D-CT]Begich, Mark [D-AK]Blumenthal, Richard [D-CT]Casey, Robert “Bob” [D-PA]Johnson, Tim [D-SD]Udall, Tom [D-NM]


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