Sunday, September 1, 2013
Colorado's new mental health legislation may help curb mass violence
Nearly every couple of weeks, it seems, we hear of another school or mass shooting or a bomb being planted in this or that public place. Even among my European friends, Colorado is famous, not for its skiing or tourist destination, but for Columbine and Aurora.
Several months ago, a 16 year old placed explosives in a Colorado suburban school and, as the judge ruled last week, he will be tried as an adult for attempted murder.. The accused defense: it was just a prank and the bomb batteries were dead.
What is wrong with Colorado?, they ask. I remind them that it has become a phenomena in other parts of the world, but world perception is that is it more of a problem in America than elsewhere. The most recent incident at McNair Academy outside Atlanta, fortunately ending without casualties thanks to a brave bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff. Newtown, Connecticut has entered national consciousness with the same intensity as does the word “Columbine”.
While every incident is a little different, what appears to be common to most , whether AK 47’s with 500 rounds of ammo or a homemade bomb are the weapons, are mental health issues . The McNair 20 year old male mentioned to Ms. Tuff that he was “ off his psych meds.” The known mental health problems of the Aurora movie theatre shooter is the main focus of that trial and his insanity defense. Whether it is out of control rage, revenge for wrongs, a sense of being victimized, a cry for help, or seeking death by cop in a media blaze of notoriety, we see a common thread of mental health problems.
There is no “silver bullet” (so to speak) to forever ending commission of such kinds of violence. It takes a variety of approaches that can only make such acts less likely. Whatever your stance on the interpretation of the 2nd amendment, mental health issues have usually been overshadowed by the debate over constitutional rights. One exception is Colorado. Both tougher gun laws and mental health legislation have been enacted this spring.
Where the 2nd amendment and mental health issues intersect is in tightening the rules on background checks. If we all agree that those with a history of mental illness should not be able to buy weapons, can anyone tell me how that can be policed without comprehensive background checks? I do get the argument that these laws would not have deterred Newtown, Columbine, or those using explosive devices, but there are other instances where it could have had some impact such as in Aurora and/ or if access and reporting laws were improved.
One of the deterrents to intercepting those with mental health problems is that seeking professional help has not been affordable. One of the little noticed provisions of Obamacare is mental health parity. Access to medications and time spent with a professional receives similar coverage as other chronic diseases, like diabetes or high blood pressure, and would not be considered a pre-existing condition, disclosure to insurers of which until now shot up the cost of health insurance premiums or led to denial.
In response to Aurora, legislation was passed in May which would provide $20 million for expansion of mental health services. Early next year, the state plans to establish walk-in crisis centers around Colorado, a 24-hour mental health hotline, mobile units to travel to rural areas where access to mental health services is limited, and greater access to 24 hour holds. The hotline will be particularly helpful to parents and friends at wits end about what to do if they fear a child or a friend is out of control or for those realizing they themselves fear they may be tempted to act out and commit violence against others.