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.
This can have severe consequences for all citizens. A 2011 paper by Steven P. Segal at the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that a third of the state-to-state variation in homicide rates was attributable to the strength or weakness of involuntary civil commitment laws.
Liza Long, a mother in Boise, Idaho, has blogged about dealing with her mentally ill 13-year-old son who has threatened to kill her or commit suicide. When Long asked a social worker for options, she was told to have the boy charged with a crime. Sadly, post-crime incarceration has become the main venue for mental health treatment. In 2010, the Treatment Advocacy Center reported there were about 3.6 seriously mentally ill individuals in Oklahoma jails or prisons for every one in a hospital. Nationally it's estimated those with serious mental illness comprise about one-fifth of inmates.
All these statistics suggest it may be time lawmakers re-evaluate statutes governing involuntary commitment and debate better funding for mental health treatment. The ACLU may oppose the first, and the latter may require diverting funds from other areas of government (although it may reduce prison costs). Still, the debate should commence.
While there may be a financial cost to increasing state mental health treatment, situations like the Connecticut shooting indicate the price for nontreatment may be far higher and paid in the blood of innocents.