After massacre, politicians step up to the mental health punching bag again

It’s been nearly 14 years since I worked on an important project at MPR News that focused on a broken mental health system and identified solutions to it and, aside from some minor successes, advocates for improved access to mental health care are saying the same thing today they were saying 14 years ago.

Politicians — mostly Republicans, the record shows — have a way of embracing mental health care access only when there’s talk of taking their guns.

President Trump pointed to the Florida shooter’s mental health. House Speaker Paul Ryan said “there may be some mental health issues with this shooting.”

“We are committed to working with state and local leaders to help secure our schools and tackle the difficult issue of mental health,” the president said.

Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott told reporters that the chief focus among officials is having “a real conversation” about both school safety and mental illness in the community.

Oh, let’s.

“We really need to look at the big picture,” says Ron Honberg, senior policy advisor at National Alliance on Mental Illness. “When you start peeling back the component parts, I can’t say that there’s been wholesale support.”

He’s being polite.

Dr. Lawrence Siegel, dean of Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, seems to be one of the few people noticing the disconnect, writing in the New York Daily News this afternoon.

“If the government needs to do a better job, why has funding of mental health services been severely decreased in recent years?” he asks.

In fact, the Trump administration’s 2018 federal budget includes a 26% cut to community health services, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and states across the nation have responded by slashing their allocations to community based mental health service providers because of these cuts.

Want to guess what state is at the bottom of the list when it comes to mental health funding? Spoiler alert: it’s Florida.

The sad fact is that every time there is a mass shooting, our politicians raise the issue of mental health concerns that we need to address.

Talk is cheap. President Trump and Congress must immediately formulate and then enact a comprehensive and fully funded plan to ensure that everyone in our country — children, adolescents and adults — has access to necessary mental health care that they require in order to become fully functioning and productive members of our society.

Only then can we even hope to help reduce the number of tragic mass murders.

Susan Matthews, writing on Slate, isn’t ready to make a diagnosis of the Florida shooter. But, hypothetically, she says, this is how America has service his mental health needs.

For one thing, nearly a year ago, Trump reversed a law that would have made it harder for people with mental illness to get guns. The law had been drafted following the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting that killed 20 children and eight adults (including the shooter and his mother).

The president did not offer an explanation for his reversal. Then, in the subsequent months, Trump crusaded for several iterations of new health care policy that would have obliterated mental health care access. His namesake bill, which did not pass, had provisions to roll back mandates that required Medicaid to cover mental health care.

The Senate bill, which also did not pass, would have allowed private insurers to remove mental health care from the list of essential benefits they are required to pay for. This legislation dovetails with how Trump talks about mental health issues—he relies on platitudes about strength rather than taking it seriously as a medical issue, and he flattens issues of drug addiction into demonstrations of personal failure that he assumes could have been fixed if people had just a little more willpower.

Given all of this, I have extremely limited faith in Trump’s ability to “tackle the difficult issue of mental health.”

Matthews notes it’s not mental illness that’s behind many mass shootings; it’s anger.

Research confirms that mental health and mass shootings are not well linked, but who’s going to check when the wagons are circled and the weaponry of blaming mental illness is drawn?

  • Jerry

    “The problem is mental illness”

    “So are you going to do anything about that?”

    “No”

    Is very similar to:

    “The real problem is ‘bad people’ with guns”

    “So are you going to enact measures to prevent ‘bad people’ from getting guns?”

    “No”

  • Postal Customer

    Next politician who begs for a “conversation” should resign.

  • PaulMN

    I don’t get what’s going on. I grew up in Wisconsin in the 1960’s and got my first gun for hunting at age 13. My friends had guns. We hunted. We never shot anyone, We never discussed, or even thought about shooting anyone. An adult could purchase a gun at a hardware store with no background check, whatsoever. You rarely heard of a school shooting back then.
    What’s changed in the past 50 years? Have we degraded as a society that much?

    • Postal Customer

      Did you hunt with a machine gun?

    • jon

      People keep saying it wasn’t a problem back in the olden days, but the data keep showing that firearm fatalities increased dramatically in the late 60’s and were high into the 70’s…

      So if it wasn’t a problem how come there were so many more dead people (per-capita) with bullet holes in them?

      From the data I can find going back to the turn of the century, it looks like the points where firearm fatalities actually decreased are just after 1934 when the national firearms act was passed, and again after 1995 when the assault weapons ban and the Brady bill were passed… Though the pro-gun lobby will point out that at the same time as the Brady bill some states started “shall issue” concealed carry laws, and try to claim that the increase in concealed carry permits in certain states was the reason for the national decline in violence…

      So yeah, I don’t buy this whole “it wasn’t a problem when we were kids” thing… perhaps it just wasn’t reported, maybe it wasn’t schools, but clearly the shootings were still happening… maybe it was more one offs instead of mass shootings, I don’t know… but I think a lot of “it never happened when I was a kid” is because of selective memory, decreased media attention on the topic (and a lack of social media to amplify it) and perhaps just a bit of selection bias that the people who didn’t get shot at lived in better neighborhoods and tended to live longer healthier happier lives to be able to make such comments 50 years later.

      • We killed presidents in the old days.

        • jon

          Oh taken in context with “this never used to be a problem” this is going to get out of hand fast.

      • AL287

        I agree.

        Shootings were happening 50 years ago but we didn’t have a 24/7 news cycle like we do today or the stories didn’t make the front page because like you said it was some unknown victim.

        In the 1980’s that changed when a postal worker entered the Edmond, Oklahoma Post Office and began shooting, killing 14 and wounding 6 more before killing himself with a shot to the head.

        I have no problem restricting gun access for the mentally ill until we start providing proper care and management for people with SPMI (severe, persistent mental illness) as we all know is woefully inadequate.

        President Obama tried to accomplish this until the current “law and order” president did away with it.

        His grandchildren will never be caught in the crossfire because they are safely tucked away in exclusive private schools.

        Newsflash, President Trump—Wealthy people and their children get mental illness,too.

        • The University of Texas shooting made the news, as I recall. Loma Linda made the news. Postal workers not only made the news, it made popular culture.

          But the reality is the worst mass shootings have all occured in the last five months.

          • AL287

            The Texas shooting was brutal. I was 9 and remember watching it on the evening news.

            Two years later it was the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

            My sister who was 14 at the time, saved all the front pages from Robert Kennedy’s assassination. His death had a profound effect on her.

            As one person from Florida said on NPR this morning, bullies were handled behind the school with fists 50 years ago not guns.

            Most mentally ill people CAN be helped with proper medication and regular counseling but the current Congress doesn’t seem to have the will or the desire to make that happen.

          • I don’t think people fully appreciate the despair of the ’60s… between killing presidents, candidates, and leaders, and the Vietnam War….

            Things suck now, for sure. But it’s nothing like the despair of the ’60s and the feeling we had waking up on June 6, 1968,in particular.

            A lot of that reality gets clouded in the phoniness of nostalgia.

          • AL287

            No. They don’t.

            That being said, there were no other mass shootings during that time other than the University of Texas that I can recall.

            However, severely mentally ill patients were housed in psychiatric hospitals across the country, some of them in brutal conditions.

            In the 1970’s someone had the brilliant idea of releasing all these patients back into their communities but without providing the counseling services and access to medication they had when they were institutionalized and we have been struggling with the issue of mental illness ever since.

            Mentally ill people are human, too and until we stop labeling them as dangerous, gun toting psychopaths hell bent on murder, nothing will change.

            The system failed this young man not the other way around.

          • jon

            Sure… but if we didn’t do anything to prevent fertilizer based truck bombs after oklahoma city would have have remained the worst fertilizer bombing in american history or would some one else have made a bigger one…. taken out a bigger building, killed more people.

            If we opted after 9/11 to not install any additional security (no barricades on doors, no passengers feeling obligated to confront would be hijackers, no changes at all) wouldn’t we still have people hijacking commercial planes to use as bombs?

            The more damage that is done the more it’s going to be regulated… except for guns… we just keep letting them get worse… We keep letting people work around the regulations in place and the pro-gun efforts keeps telling us we don’t need more rules, we just need to enforce the ones we have, the ones they figured out how to work around…

          • Ralphy

            If memory serves, didn’t the autopsy show the killer had a brain tumor that may have caused him to act?

          • kevins

            Yes it did.

          • Credit Warrior

            Not sure what you definition is for “worst mass shooting?” If it means those resulting in death you might considered the last 20 years. Yes Las Vegas is tops but the list below seems to list many others that were bad way beyond the past five months.
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_shootings_in_the_United_States

      • >>I think a lot of “it never happened when I was a kid” is because of selective memory, decreased media attention on the topic (and a lack of social media to amplify it) and perhaps just a bit of selection bias that the people who didn’t get shot at lived in better neighborhoods and tended to live longer healthier happier lives to be able to make such comments 50 years later.<<

        Spot. On.

      • And people still got shot in gun accidents back then – same as now. Suicides, too.

  • Ickster

    Bringing up mental health in the context of mass shootings is just an example of the No True Scotsman: Real gun owners don’t commit mass shootings; it’s just those outsiders with mental health issues / who hate America / who play video games / whatever. It’s not a bona fide attempt to get to the bottom of the problem, but simply an attempt to deflect from the discussion about the easy availability of semi-automatic rifles and handguns making it damn easy for anyone who gets angry to go out and kill lots of people.

    • Ickster

      After posting my comment above, I went back to reading my news feed. Three items later, a headline reads, “Video games, not guns, to blame for school shooting, says Kentucky gov.”

      • Oh there’s a long list of things that are responsible before they get to the one thing that was specifically designed to accomplish what these gasbags pretend to be interested in stopping

      • jon

        Here is my understanding from the pro-gun lobby.
        Cars kill more people than I do, so outlaw cars!
        Video games are to blame!
        Spoiled kids are to blame!
        It’s just the times we live in that are to blame!
        Everything except for me is to blame, and I’m a responsible gun owner!
        Laws don’t work!
        The police are never going to take my guns away no matter what the laws!

        to which I reply (in order)
        Cars don’t kill more people and motor vehicles (all of them) kill only a few more people, but I get in my car every day, I fire a gun rarely… on a per use basis guns are far more deadly.
        Video games have been demonstrated over and over again to not cause violent tenancies in study after study.
        Spoiled kids have been to blame for all of societies woes for thousands of years…. pick on some one your own size you bully.
        If laws don’t work why regulate abortions?
        So you keep saying blue lives matter, but you are willing to shoot a cop if they try to enforce a law, and your argument is that we should let you a have a gun?

        Responsible gun owners have nothing to fear from common sense legislation… the irresponsible ones are shouting loudly about how irresponsible and or mentally unstable they are…. seems like the first group who shouldn’t have guns according to the folks who want to blame people that kill people rather than the guns they use as tools….

      • MikeB

        Deflection, by people who lecture us about personal responsibility

      • rallysocks

        A FB commentator on a post about changing the signs in school from “Gun Free” to “Heavily armed and not afraid to kill” which is being credited to the odious Duck Dynasty clan insists we just need to teach our children to be kind.

  • jon

    Multiple unrelated sources on Facebook told me the problem is “kids today” they are a bunch of spoiled brats…
    I presume the issue is that the damn kids want to not wanting to be shot in schools… (SPOILED)

    It’s not like in the last 6 months a 64 year old man shot up a country music concert…

  • Doug

    If one were to draw a graph demonstrating the relaxation of gun laws and the increase in gun deaths I’m sure they would be parallel. It’s as simple as that. It has nothing to do with mental illness. We’ve always had mentally ill people, but they didn’t have access to guns.

  • Gary F

    Cruz passed a background check. Most of today’s mass killers have. He could have been reported to NICS, but wasnt.

    • Ickster

      Your point seems to be that background checks are useless. I’m not conceding the point, but I’m I’d like to hear what your thoughts are on addressing the problem.

      • Perhaps we should go back to the “Assault* gun, high-cap ban” that was enacted in 1998? There seems to be a large increase in mass shootings since that law expired.

        • X.A. Smith

          With improvements, yes.

      • Ralphy

        Well, there are clearly too many guns in circulation for any meaningful forward thinking legislation to make much of a difference now.
        I’m just offering a short brainstorm for consideration.
        • A buy-back program that will buy any gun, no questions asked, for some serious money, say $5,000.
        • Require the manufacturer to have $1,000,000 insurance for each gun.
        This would create a powerful incentive for the industry to self regulate who gets a gone, or to support enhanced government regulations.
        • Limit the amount of ammunition that can be bought in a period of time. Perhaps 100 rounds every 3 months.
        • Place a $10 tax on every bullet sold, refundable with proof the bullet was spent at a range.
        • By executive order, effective immediately, any “ghost” guns or modification equipment bought, sold, built or possessed is illegal with a mandatory jail sentence and fine.
        • Any crime committed while in possession or ready access to a gun adds 5 years hard time. If the weapon is discharged, 5 more years. If anyone is hit, 10 more years per person. If anyone is killed, 25 more years per person.
        • Legislation that would make the original buyer of the weapon responsible for that weapon in perpetuity.

        • X.A. Smith

          I think gun owners should have to carry liability insurance, like car owners. Get caught without insurance, lose the gun.

    • RBHolb

      Then we need to make the background checks more stringent.

      • Gary F

        fixnics.org

        • RBHolb

          A pro-gun organization publishes a map showing statistics. I’m not sure what that is supposed to be saying.

      • Gary F
  • Rob

    Bob C., I’m still waiting for you to start a “Life is Cheap” heading for News Cut posts…

  • Brian Simon

    “Trump reversed a law that would have made it harder for people with mental illness to get guns.”

    He’s turning this place into a shithole.

    .

    • MikeB

      And he has quite a bit of help

  • Ralphy

    A sobering, heartbreaking statistic and serious question from Sara Porter, MPR:

    There have been more than 1,600 mass shootings since the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012.
    What should be done to address this violence?

  • Ralphy

    In the past ten years gun homicides in the US (not suicides) have killed twice as many as the number US soldiers that died from all causes in the ten years of our fighting the Vietnam War.

    • jon

      10 years? I’d ball park it at the last 5-6 years, maybe even since sandy hook…

      Firearm homicides are about 10,000-12,000 a year, and vietnam recorded what ~58,000 US military casualties?

      • Ralphy

        Correct.
        We were in combat in Vietnam for 10 years. 55,000 + US soldiers died.
        We suffer 10-12,000 gun homicides per year. Over 10 years we allow twice as many deaths by our own hand then by an army we are at war with.

        • jon

          I guess I missed the word “twice” the first time around…

  • Credit Warrior

    These incidents will continue to spiral out of control until we as individuals stop the finger pointing, stop the politics, stop the blame. Killing of innocent adults, teenagers or children by deranged individuals with or without guns is a sad statement about the family unit that these killers are raised in. It’s a sad statement about a society that governs by who gives them the most money. It’s a sad statement for ALL politicians that give “lip service” to these horrific events. We need to come together and come up with realistic solutions that will work for the greatest good. There are over 300+ million guns in the US. I believe assault weapons/guns and their ammo should be banned or at least severely restricted. I have been a responsible gun owner (1 shotgun and 1 rifle) for 55+ years. I still enjoy hunting a couple of times a year. I do not support banning a guns. Removing the 2nd amendment would be a failure as there are too many responsible gun owners who would never turn their guns in. It would be similar to the failure of banning alcohol sales in 1919 with the 18th amendment.

    Irrational people kill other persons. Somewhere in there early life there was a breakdown in their family unit. Cutting funds for family/individual mental health treatment/counselling needs to stop. The media adds to the problem with it’s sensational on the spot reporting. Those with sick minds see a way for them to become infamous. We need to keep guns out of the hands of those who are in treatment.

    The nations schools are not sufficiently protected from these type of attacks. Its a sad society that protects it’s banks and money better than protecting its children in schools. How much are we willing to pay to have our schools better protected?
    Airlines have sky marshals, maybe we should have school marshals that are not identified and roam the halls posing as teachers. Current protective strategy is not working. Sitting a guard/policeman at the door is a poor strategy.

    I wrote both my state and federal legislators and will continue to do so. Everyone should do the same We use to be a nation of problem solvers. Its time to stop being a nation of finger pointers.

    • History shows that when the media disappears from an issue, the issue disappears from the consciousness of the nation.

      • Credit Warrior

        Interesting report about a study in LA Times seems to indicate national coverage of horrific events/shootings increases shooting across the country for about 13 days while local media coverage of shootings do not.

        http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-orlando-shooting-media-20160618-snap-story.html

        I am not against covering the event. Much of the breaking news is inaccurate and they spend time repeating and showing the same thing on multiple networks over and over.

        Your history comment seems to show that coverage to this point has not been effective in keeping in the consciousness of the nation. All things, guns, mental health, school security and the media coverage should be looked objectively.

        • I’m working my way through that study but it doesn’t seem to jibe with my admittedly anecdotal data which would seem to show that the most widely covered school shootings — Columbine, Cold Spring, Virginia Tech, etc — were spaced fairly far apart as opposed to being “clustered”. or about once a month, as the study indicated.

          Now, it may well be that following a widely covered event , there are a host of comparatively smaller shootings that occur in schools.

          The study said there was evidence of contagion but other than a mathematical formula (the self-excitation contagion model), it was impossible for me to determine whether that’s the case OR… more importantly, whether that has remained the case in the subsequent three years.

      • rallysocks

        Which i believe speaks to the “we brought guns to school everyday and nobody used them to kill each other” argument. It happened, we just didn’t hear about it.