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New Gun Control Laws Take Aim at Addicts

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The NRA's Wayne LaPierre photo via

By Sy Mukherjee

02/18/13

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In early January, New York state governor Andrew Cuomo, one of the nation’s most progressive presidential aspirants, signed a sweeping gun law that includes a provision requiring mental health professionals to inform their county directors of any patient who exhibits “harmful thoughts” to self or others. If the police are informed, they can then void the patient’s Second Amendment rights. A month later, a Georgia senate health committee unanimously passed legislation allowing licensed mental health professionals—including ordinary counselors—to involuntarily commit patients they deem potentially dangerous (to themselves or others) to an institution for 72 hours.

In reality, almost all mass shootings are done in family or workplace contexts by a perpetrator with no mental illness—or an undiagnosed and untreated one. “Most of these killers are young men who are not floridly psychotic,” Michael Stone, MD, a clinical psychiatry professor at Columbia University and an expert on mass murderers, told The New York Times. “They tend to be paranoid loners who hold a grudge and are full of rage.”

A paranoid loner is unlikely to end up in the office of a psychotherapist, while the people in treatment—now possibly coming under tighter surveillance—pose little risk except to themselves. If anything, mental health experts say, stricter regulation will discourage a paranoid-loner type from even considering treatment. 

Fixating the gun violence debate on the issue of mental illness may have emerged as a tactic to change the subject from gun control, but it could do a lot of real-world damage. It threatens to intensify the stigma surrounding the mentally ill by popularizing the false notion that they are violent—and this goes double for people with a dual diagnosis.

This focus threatens to intensify the stigma surrounding the mentally ill by popularizing the demonstrably false notion that they are violent.

If the New York state law is any indication, the provisions are likely to be written so vaguely as to only stoke the fears of someone who is in, or who needs, treatment. Questions like whether you will end up in the state’s criminal background check database, whether prospective employers will have access to this information, and whether a diagnosis can ever be expunged following treatment could have a chilling effect on addicts—especially those who use an illegal substance—with a dual diagnosis. 

That's bad news for recovering addicts in need of mental health treatment, who already tend not to receive care. The 2011 SAMHSA numbers show that less than a third of Americans with a substance abuse disorder received any mental health care at all. An additional 4% received such treatment in rehab. A mere 7% of addicts accessed both mental health care and rehab services. While laws such as the one in New York are intended to preserve public safety, they might have the adverse effect of instilling mistrust between patients and their doctors, exacerbating this public health crisis even further. And the worse the substance abuse, the worse the co-occurring mental illness and risk of suicide.

President Obama's gun-control proposal is relatively uncontroversial as far as its provisions for reporting mental health status to background check databases, as those laws are already on the books (though poorly enforced). But the president's insistence that mental health care providers "get in the game" when it comes to reporting potentially violent individuals has already become a sticking point for doctors—not to mention a needless obstacle to addicts who genuinely want to recover from their illnesses. The president has insisted that such provisions will not violate patient privacy, and are only meant to target truly risky individuals. Current and prospective mental health patients had better hope he is right. Otherwise, they face a healthcare landscape in which they're discouraged from talking about, say, thoughts of finding happiness at the end of a warm gun.

Sy Mukherjee is a reporter and blogger on health issues for ThinkProgress.com.

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