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Mental Health Experts Reflect On President’s Plan to Reduce Gun Violence

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Allan Ajifo
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Mental health issues are a top priority in the president’s plan to reduce gun violence.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, says it will be watching to make sure proposed rule changes treat mentally ill patients and their families fairly.

The president’s plan calls for adding information from the Social Security Administration to the background check system used by people who are purchasing guns.

Rick Cagan of the Kansas branch of NAMI is worried about this change because he says the vast majority of individuals with mental illness are not violent.

"Individuals with serious mental illness in this background check system should be based on risk factors for violence that are identified through research; not on a stereotypical, unsubstantiated assumption that there is a relationship between mental illness and violence," Cagan says.

He says a bigger issue is that more than 50 percent of adults and children with a serious mental illness are not in treatment.

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Credit wichita.edu
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Maureen Dasey-Morales.

When President Obama introduced his plan to reduce gun violence on Tuesday, he included several components that deal with mental health.

The plan calls for investing $500 million to increase access to mental health services and make mental health a top priority in the country. Mental health professionals say that’s a good step forward, but point out that mental illness alone is not a risk factor or a predictor of gun violence.

KMUW’s Deborah Shaar looks at the mental health issue as it relates to gun violence in an in-depth interview with Maureen Dasey-Morales, director of Wichita State University's counseling and testing center.

Deborah Shaar: When you heard the president's plan to reduce gun violence by focusing a little bit of attention on mental health, did it concern you that they seem to be suggesting a link between gun violence and mental health?

Maureen Dasey-Morales: You know, I had mixed feelings. I was both encouraged and excited to hear that more resources might be going towards mental health care. It's certainly needed; there have been lots of cuts and not enough access for it. But at the same time, [I feel] very concerned that it perpetuates a myth that people with mental health conditions are the people perpetuating gun violence more often than not, when in fact we know they tend to be the victims of gun violence more often than the perpetrators of it. 

So I think that any time we can work on people making good choices, making healthy choices for themselves is gonna make a safer society. There's no doubt about that. But I think we really need to take a very complex look at gun violence and the role of guns overall. I don't think it's a one-dimensional issue.

And [Obama is] talking a little bit about increasing access to mental health services. As a professional here in our community, what is your impression of the landscape for mental health services here in Sedgwick County?

I think the county in particular has done a fantastic job in the past few years in developing a community crisis center, [and] in really looking at new, alternative ways at delivering services, but I'm sure that their resources are limited, that there's lots more that they could do that they're not able to. And I know that the need for services is far greater than we're able to reach right now, both for us on campus as well as for those in the community.

I think one of the biggest needs is being able to help train people in the community to help those that need mental health services get the services they have. So while it's important to increase access, if people don't know how to get that access, if they don't know how to get people to those services, I think that we're still going to have issues. 

As a mental health provider and professional here in the community, I'm sure you see people that need treatment that aren't getting it, and perhaps those are the people that this new plan might be able to help.

Of course, we hope so. And the reason people don't get treatment that they need is also multi-dimensional. For some people, it's the stigma of getting mental health services, that they don't feel that that is something they can get. One of the concerns about getting mental health services for those people is helping them feel like getting help is a sign of strength rather than a sign of weakness; that it will truly work. I think it's important to get the word out there that mental health treatment really works.

For some people, not seeking services is simply that they don't know what's out there. And for some, they really need somebody in their lives to push them in that direction. 

One component in the president's plan concerns changing which agencies can report for background purposes people who have mental illnesses. Do you worry that maybe that could become a barrier to someone keeping them from seeking treatment?

I think it's going to be really important for all of us in this field to find a balance between keeping communities safe, keeping our clients safe, but at the same time protecting privacy. Because part of increasing access to mental health care is helping people feel that they can do so confidentially. Otherwise it's going to be very hard for many people to want to seek treatment.