GNS: MH Advocates Fear N.Y. Gun Law May Keep Ill From Seeking Treatment

NYAPRS Note: Consumer, family and provider groups join together in the article below to share concerns about the impact of New York’s new gun law on our community.


Mental-Health Advocates Fear N.Y. Gun Law May Keep Ill From Seeking Treatment

By Jessica Bakeman  Gannett News Service  Albany Bureau  January 16, 2013


ALBANY - Experts debated Wednesday whether the mental-health provisions of New York’s new gun-control law will help, hurt or do nothing at all to prevent dangerous people from harming themselves or others.

While mental-health advocates said the law might discourage people who are suffering from seeking treatment, others who work with the mentally ill argued the law was a positive step toward curbing violence.

The Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, which was introduced, passed and signed into law in less than 24 hours Tuesday, requires therapists and social workers to report to county mental-health directors if they think a patient is dangerous. That information will go into a state database, which will be used to revoke gun owners’ licenses and confiscate their weapons.

Also, gun owners who live with people who are not allowed to own guns, such as the mentally ill or those who have been convicted of domestic violence, must lock up their firearms to restrict access.

The law also extends and expands a measure that lets courts order mentally ill people into outpatient treatment as a condition of living in a community.

“This is about keeping guns out of the hands of people who are mentally ill and dangerous to themselves or others,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday in Rochester, where he touted the bill’s passage. “Keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. Increasing penalties for use of illegal guns.”

James Kelleher, president-elect of the Psychiatric Society of Westchester County, said the danger is that the new law might prevent people from coming forward for mental-health treatment if they fear they could lose their firearms.

“The law does not go far enough to provide appropriate treatment of mental illness in our community,” he said. “We have to look at mental-health issues from a prevention viewpoint. If we can intervene early on, we can treat more effectively.”

Other mental-health advocates agreed, noting their fear that the law could keep distressed individuals from getting the help they need.

“The unintended consequences of this policy would be for people to either decline to get care, to lose trust in their clinician or to decline to disclose what is happening to them,” said Harvey Rosenthal, executive director of the state Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services.

Rosenthal said the law’s definition of people who are “mentally ill and dangerous” or “likely to engage in conduct that will cause serious harm to him- or herself or others” will be difficult to interpret and might lead to overreporting. Other advocates said clinicians would need to exercise caution under the new legislation or risk unjustly labeling their patients.

“In America, people have rights,” said Harris Stratyner, a Yonkers psychologist and clinical associate professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “We don’t want to overreact. We don’t want to brand people who talk about things that they will never do as being too dangerous to own a gun. There has to be a balance between trust in the therapist and the safety of the public.”

Rena Finkelstein, president of NAMI-Familya of Rockland, a local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the law’s restrictions aimed at people who are mentally ill could increase the already huge stigma against people with psychiatric illness.

“I personally believe in gun control,” she said. “But it’s a fact that people with mental illness are not more violent than the general society. Only a very small percentage of the mentally ill commit violent acts.” She would prefer an emphasis on treatment for people who are mentally ill.

Experts stressed that the dialogue on gun-control laws nationwide has perpetuated stereotypes.

“We don’t think we should even be talking about mental-health care and gun violence in the same conversation,” said Steve Coe, CEO of Community Access, a New York City-based group that advocates for deinstitutionalization, “because they really don’t have all that much to do with each other.”

DJ Jaffe, founder of the New York City-based Mental Illness Policy Organization, said some of the mass shootings or murders might have been prevented if a mental-health professional who was aware that a patient was at risk had reported it to authorities. He said the law doesn’t go far enough.

“I hope they also use that list to make sure these people get priority access to treatment and not just to exclude them from owning guns,” he said.

Jaffe said he thinks the new system may be underutilized.

“I don’t think there will be any reporting, very simply because nobody wants to accept responsibility for the most seriously ill,” he said.

People with potentially dangerous or untreated illnesses like schizophrenia often fall into the criminal-justice system, said Michael Biasotti, president of the state Association of Chiefs of Police and chief of the New Windsor Police Department in Orange County. Biasotti agreed the law would affect a small number of people who have extreme symptoms and tend not to take medication consistently.

“And these are people that should not have weapons to begin with,” he said.