Here’s a Law That Can Prevent Shootings—Without Changing Gun Control

Congress can’t agree on solutions based on access to weapons or ammo, but can it agree to help the severely mentally ill?

A policeman stands guard at Seattle Pacific University after the campus was evacuated due to a shooting in Seattle, Washington June 5, 2014. (Photo: David Ryder/Reuters)

Jun 10, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

"Following the deadly mass shooting, authorities learned the gunman was a sad, mentally ill person who had been flagged for psychiatric care."

Which perpetrator does that sentence describe? These days, any number of them.

Mass shootings are now so frequent in America that we can often predict the broad strokes of the shooter’s background before we even learn his name: He is often a troubled young man who stopped receiving care for a mental illness, or who desperately needed it.

Victims’ families have turned to the federal government for help in preventing more deaths, but gun control is a political nonstarter, and enhancing school security often seems to create more problems for cash-strapped schools than it solves. One attempted fix, however, is slowly gathering bipartisan support in Congress: the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.

Sponsored by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., who was a practicing psychologist for three decades, the bill would make it easier for families of the severely mentally ill to get information about the health of their loved ones, and direct federal monies to enhancing the nation’s mental health programs.

Under current medical privacy law, chiefly the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, doctors can’t share many details of an adult’s mental illness with relatives until harm is imminent.

The parents of 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who killed six and injured 13 before killing himself, were warned by a therapist about their son’s promises of the violent attack less than an hour before it happened in the Isla Vista community near Santa Barbara, Calif., on May 23. They were making the two-hour drive from Los Angeles to stop their son when the shooting happened.

The current law is taken to such an extreme, hospitals can’t even tell family members if their loved one is institutionalized, according to John Snook, deputy executive for government affairs at the Treatment Advocacy Center.

“Even more ridiculous, patients have been released from institutions directly to a park bench because family can’t be told they were released, or that they were even in a hospital,” Snook said.

More common than that, however, is that many families see their mentally ill loved ones spiraling out of control but are powerless to do anything about it. Rodger’s mother, for instance, could take her son to a mental health professional, but under the law, she couldn’t be told many details of his mental condition as it worsened, or his treatment plan, without Rodger’s consent.

How can you help if you don't know what you’re up against?

The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act would amend medical privacy laws to allow families of mentally ill adults more access to medical records and give them a seat at the table with health providers in establishing treatment plans.

In addition, the bill would establish new funding for so-called Assisted Outpatient Treatment programs across the country. These programs work by putting the weight of the justice system into ensuring that the severely mentally ill—those with a history of violence, self-harm, or incarceration—get the help they need and stay on prescribed treatment plans. Essentially, a severely mentally ill individual would see his or her treatment plan enforced by a court order. Failure to follow that plan would result in inpatient institutionalization, overseen by the court.

“We know there is a percentage of those with severe mental illness who can’t understand that they are sick,” said Snook. “They routinely relapse and are hospitalized or, worse, hurt someone, because they can’t stay on meds or a treatment plan. This is one way to break that cycle.”

Preliminary studies have shown that such treatment programs have led to lower rates of hospitalization and incarceration among those with severe mental illness, he said. “We call it the ‘black robe effect.’ Having a judge participate is enough for a majority of folks with severe mental illness to stay on their medication. Even if they don’t believe they are mentally ill, they can say, ‘The judge is making me do it.’ And that seems to work.”

In his manifesto, Rodger wrote that he was prescribed the anti-psychotic medication risperidone, often used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder: “I refused to take it.”

We know the results.

“There are so many holes in our nation’s mental health system,” Snook said. “This law has to have a beneficial impact. And that’s going to lead to better a outcome in every scenario—including some of the instances of violence you often see in the news.”