By Kelly Gunning
The Kentucky House of Representatives voted 97-1 on Monday in favor of House Bill 308; a bill proposed by Representative Bob Damron. The measure would require Kentucky to report to the FBI when a person is committed, by a court, to a mental institution or if they have been declared mentally ill by a court. Federal law, in terribly offensive language, prohibits the sale of guns to individuals “adjudicated as a “mental defective or who have been committed to a mental institution” - previously; Kentucky had been one of many states that did not participate in this notification process. One can’t help but think that the recent shootings in Arizona contributed to the passage and proposal of this bill. The issues that present themselves in these high profile, mass shooting, incidents deserve our sharpened focus on preventing future tragedy but they are also complex and represent crucial, sensitive and long-standing questions that we as a society must grapple with while trying to balance individual liberty, privacy and public safety. It is impossible to eliminate all risks - even logical risks and easy to resort to reactionary policy making. The truth is; we can expect more tragedy’s like Arizona and Virginia Tech whether there is beefed up law enforcement, more lists and more reporting. More of those things will not change the course of these recurrent tragic events. The only thing that would impact this discourse in a positive way would be – MORE TREATMENT for severe and chronic mental illness. Recent reports in the last two weeks by several leading news outlets highlighted reports that incoming college freshman are coming in with higher rates of mental illness. It was reported that 63% of college freshmen self-identified as having some level of mental health issue. We also know that college age years are when many serious illnesses become apparent and require intervention and treatment for the first time yet there is little funding for early prevention diagnosis and prevention of these brain diseases – unlike the bombardment of info on STD’s , date rape and pregnancy.
We all shake our heads and claim disbelief when we observe what has become the normal deluge of reporting and commentary when a tragedy such as Arizona pulls the spotlight on to mental health issues in this country - we talk about it 24/7 - but then within a few days “the next big thing” happens, the rhetoric fades and with the exception of a few reactionary changes we move on…until it happens again and it will.
It will… because since the 1950’s there has been a 90% reduction in the number of available psychiatric hospital beds. We have gone from 1 bed for every 300 people to one bed for every 3000 people since 1950 to the present.
It will… because the criminal justice system is providing those “beds” and is overrun with and serving the psychiatric care needs of 2 million people.
It will… because we refuse to adequately fund community treatment and wrap around services like housing for folks early on in the course of their illness.
It will… because we cannot seek help for our mentally ill loved ones until they meet one very important criteria – DANGEROUSNESS.
To me, something is very wrong when the law voraciously protects my loved one’s right to be untreated and mentally ill to the point of dangerousness to himself and the community…but then doesn’t mind being quick to act on limiting other rights such as; being sure he can’t exercise his constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Guess they don’t mean THAT dangerous.
Kelly Gunning is operations director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Lexington.
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