EDITORIAL: Shootings highlight mental health concerns
Daily Oklahoman - 8/9/2019
Aug. 9--In the debate over causes and solutions to mass killings in the United States, a debate renewed with particular vigor following last weekend's shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the issue of mental health policy should not be overlooked.
This is something The Oklahoman has written about many times through the years because of the toll that poor mental health takes on the state.
Oklahoma leads the nation, on a per capita basis, in the number of people in prison. The Department of Corrections has said about one-third of its inmates exhibit a serious mental illness. Roughly four of every five need mental health or substance abuse treatment.
Across the state, about 630,000 Oklahomans struggle with mental health issues, but a lack of providers means many don't get the help they need.
Mental health advocates note that those who can get treatment and maintain it are able to live normal, productive lives. This is a point that cannot be overstated. However, problems arise when treatment isn't available or when patients self-medicate or choose not to medicate.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, E. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatrist and founder of the Arlington, Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center, argued that the widespread availability of guns in this country "obviously plays a role" in mass shootings, but so does untreated mental illness.
Torrey noted that the country's move away from institutionalization of the seriously mentally ill has had consequences. About 1 million Americans, Torrey wrote, are living with a serious mental illness that formerly would have been treated in state mental hospitals, with studies showing "between 40% and 50% of them are receiving no treatment."
He cited an FBI report that reviewed active-shooter situations from 2008 to 2013. It found 40% of shooters had received a psychiatric diagnosis and 70% had "mental health stressors" or "mental health concerning behaviors" before the attack. A U.S.Secret Service study of 27 attacks from 2018 said two-thirds of the suspects showed symptoms of mental illness or emotional disturbance.
The Journal's editorial board said U.S. mental health spending has increased during the past decade but, "The problem is identifying those with mental illness who are a threat, and then allowing society to intervene to prevent violence."
States allow for involuntary treatment for people with severe mental illness who can't seek care themselves. In Oklahoma, a program called assisted outpatient treatment is available via court order for those who are repeatedly unable to follow their treatment plan. Some states also have adopted "red flag" laws that let police or family members petition to take firearms away from those who may present a danger.
State spending on mental health in Oklahoma has inched up in recent years. However, if nothing else, these horrible shootings should remind state policymakers of the importance of mental health services and the need to continue investing in them.
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