Shooting underscores need for serious debate about mental health policy

The Oklahoman Editorial Published: December 23, 2012

THE Connecticut tragedy has prompted calls for new gun control laws. But those suggested responses appear unlikely to have meaningful effect even if found constitutional. An “assault weapons” ban didn't prevent the 1999 Columbine school shooting. Timothy McVeigh proved that a truckload of fertilizer could be just as destructive as a fully automatic weapon.

A more worthwhile approach, which some officials are suggesting, is to revisit the issue of mental health treatment, particularly increasing the ability to involuntarily commit an individual.

In 2010, a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriffs Association noted that in 1955 there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 Americans. By 2005, there was just one psychiatric bed for every 3,000 Americans — although the national population had increased significantly.

“Deinstitutionalization, the emptying of state mental hospitals, has been one of the most well-meaning but poorly planned social changes ever carried out in the United States,” the report declared.

Undeniably, some individuals who would have previously been institutionalized now walk the streets and pose a public threat. Getting them care is extremely difficult, particularly since the mentally ill often must initiate treatment. That's challenging, because an estimated 50 percent of those with severe mental illness don't recognize they are ill. And there are many such people. Ellen Harris, past president of NAMI Oklahoma, has said one in 17 adults has a serious mental illness and one in 10 children lives with a serious mental or emotional disorder, but less than one-third of those individuals get any mental health services.

Some of those people — adults and children — are a potential threat to others and aren't volunteering for treatment. In Oklahoma, emergency detention is allowed for people who appear mentally ill if they are believed to be an imminent danger to themselves or someone else. Having to meet that threshold effectively means having to wait until someone has been harmed or clearly placed in harm's way.

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