Rochester, N.Y.— When Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a new state gun control bill into law this week, it included a mental health component.
The law would require doctors, social workers, therapists and psychologists to report their patients to authorities if they are likely to hurt themselves or other people. The patient would then be disqualified from buying any guns and/or any guns they owned would be confiscated.
The Mental Health Association in Rochester believes this component of the law unfairly targets the mental health patients.
“In a way, it's increased the stigma,” said Patricia Woods, president of the Mental Health Association. “It's increased the secretiveness about mental illness and it may have the exact opposite effect of what they were trying to prevent.”
Woods and many others in the mental health community are afraid that people may not want to seek treatment or that patients may withhold information from their therapists and psychologists because of the fear of getting reported. She feels the law could do more harm than good.
Woods says the law also singles out those with a mental illness as the only perpetrators of a violent attack.
“The reality is that individuals with mental illness are 12 times more likely to be victims of violence than be the perpetrators,” she said.
According to the organizations only 4 percent of violent crimes are committed by someone with a serious mental illness.
Psychologist Robert Insull says he understands why the state felt the need to pass a gun control law. After the recent tragedies and Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT, he says the issue was hard to ignore.
However, as a mental health professional, he wishes the legislators had taken more time to discuss the law and its implications.
First, Insull says that the law inaccurately assumes that a mental health professional can predict or prevent acts of violence.
“Predicting violence is an extremely difficult thing to do,” he explained. “Mental health professionals, as a group are notoriously no better at predicting violence than the Joe Schmo on the street. Now we're being asked as professionals to make that kind of prediction, not only in the confines of our own practice where I might start watching the patient more carefully, but now the law requires that I report it.”
Second, Insull says the law has major consequences for patient-doctor confidentiality agreements. He, too, is afraid patients won’t be open with their doctors or decided not to seek treatment at all.
“Without that confidentiality, [the patients] can't feel free to talk about what's going on in their lives.”
Even without the law, mental health professionals have an obligation to report serious threats a patient makes, but the Mental Health Association officials say the new law is unclear and could add an extra burden on these professionals.
“It ups the worry that if something was to happen, that you are you going to be responsible for it,” Woods explained.
The Mental Health Association’s Director of Community Engagement, Melanie Funchess, also wonders if “being reported” could negatively affect other aspects of a patient’s life. For example, if a patient is “reported” as someone capable of violence, but has never commits a crime and is considered an upstanding citizen, would this affect the person’s ability to get jobs?
“People all over the country commit violent crimes every single day and are not mentally ill,” she said. “We as human beings don't want to see the darkness within ourselves so we will default that this person must be an ‘other’, that they must be crazy, that they must be mentally ill.”
Woods says she wishes the governor had focused more on mental health resources, funding and improving access to mental healthcare instead.