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Mon, Oct. 14

Editorial: Mental health looms large in gun debate

In the wake of tragic shootings - Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Connecticut, among many others - calls for improved gun control laws have continued. However, any responses will not have the meaningful effect desired, even if they pass constitutional muster.

A modicum of proof is seen in the 1999 Columbine school shooting in Colorado; the "assault weapons" ban was well in-force at the time. Further, Timothy McVeigh used a truckload of fertilizer in Oklahoma City - not a gun.

This week, on Monday, salt was thrown on the fresh wounds of Connecticut when a gunman shot four volunteer firefighters near Rochester, N.Y. At press time, two of the men had died.

All of these factors combine for a necessary, more meaningful approach to this barrage of violence - which would be to revisit the issue of mental health treatment, including increased ability to involuntarily commit an individual.

Consider that in 2010, the Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriffs Association issued a report noting that in 1955 one psychiatric bed existed for every 300 Americans. By 2005, there was just one psychiatric bed for every 3,000 Americans. And the national population continues to increase.

Undeniably, then, 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.

"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.

Some of those people are a potential threat to others and aren't volunteering for treatment. This can have severe consequences for all citizens.

A 2011 paper by Steven P. Segal at the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that one-third of the state-to-state variation in homicide rates was attributable to the strength or weakness of involuntary civil commitment laws.

All of this suggests it may be time lawmakers re-evaluate statutes governing involuntary commitment and debate better funding for mental health treatment. Entities, such as the ACLU as well as lawmakers, may oppose these concepts.

But in the debate of gun control, treatment must be included.

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