Only a severely disturbed individual marches into an elementary school or a movie theater and guns down innocent people.
But how can society stop such people in time to avert tragedy?This question now “drives the public longing for a mental health system
that produces clear warning signals and can somehow stop the violence.And it is now fueling a surge in legislative activity, in Washington and New York,” reports a story by Benedict Carey and Anemona Hartcollis in today’s New York Times. The piece continues:
“But these proposed changes and others like them may backfire and only reveal how broken the system is, experts said. ‘Anytime you have one of these tragic cases like Newtown, it’s going to expose deficiencies in the mental health system, and provide some opportunity for reform,’ said Richard J. Bonnie, a professor of public policy at the University of Virginia’s law school who led a state commission that overhauled policies after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings that left 33 people dead. ‘But you have to be very careful not to overreact.’
“New York State legislators on Tuesday passed a gun bill that would require therapists to report to the authorities any client thought to be “likely to engage in” violent behavior; under the law, the police would confiscate any weapons the person had.
“And in Washington, lawmakers said that President Obama was considering a range of actions as part of a plan to reduce gun violence, including more sharing of records between mental health and law enforcement agencies.
“The White House plan to make use of mental health data was still taking shape late Tuesday. But several ideas being discussed — including the reporting provision in the New York gun law — are deeply contentious and transcend political differences.
“Some advocates favored the reporting provision as having the potential to prevent a massacre. Among them was D. J. Jaffe, founder of the Mental Illness Policy Org., which pushes for more aggressive treatment policies. Some mass killers “were seen by mental health professionals who did not have to report their illness or that they were becoming dangerous and they went on to kill,” he said.Yet many patient advocates and therapists strongly disagreed, saying it would intrude into the doctor-patient relationship in a way that could dissuade troubled people from speaking their minds, and complicate the many judgment calls therapists already have to make.
“The New York statute requires doctors and other mental health professionals to report any person who ‘is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.’
“Under current ethical guidelines, only involuntary hospitalizations (and direct threats made by patients) are reported to the authorities. These reports then appear on a federal background-check database. The new laws would go further.”