APA President Dilip Jeste, M.D., sent a letter in late December on behalf of the Association to leaders of both the Senate and House of Representatives responding to the massacre in Newtown, Conn., and emphasizing that psychiatrists “stand ready to do whatever we can to help alleviate the suffering caused by the tragedy and to help the survivors cope with life after a trauma of this unimaginable magnitude.”
Jeste also expressed APA’s concern about some proposals to identify people with mental illness by placing them on special registries and about media accounts that inaccurately portray people with mental illness.
“Stigma remains one of the greatest barriers to early identification, intervention, and treatment for Americans seeking help for mental illness, and we hope that Congress will avoid making generalized assumptions about persons now in or seeking treatment for mental illness,” he told congressional leaders. “The vast majority of violence in our society is not perpetrated by persons with serious mental disorders. Research suggests that individuals with mental illness engaged in regular treatment are considerably less likely to commit violent acts than those in need of, but not engaged in, appropriate mental health treatment.”
Highlighting the effectiveness of psychiatric treatment, Jeste urged policymakers to focus on the fact that access to comprehensive, effective psychiatric treatment works. “Yet at the very time of the Newtown tragedy, federal and state funding of critical mental health services is under siege,” he said, pointing out that 29 states have eliminated a total of more than 3,200 psychiatric inpatient beds since 2008.
Jeste also called on Congress to address the abundance and easy availability of guns, saying that APA believes “any discussion on fostering a robust mental health delivery system must not be isolated from discussions of strategies to reduce gun violence.” He condemned laws to bar physicians from asking about the presence of guns in a patient’s home and pointed out that APA has expressed support for “appropriately targeted proposals such as mental health registries and modified access to firearms as meaningful ways to curb gun violence.”
Four days later, in the wake of comments about people with mental illness by the head of the National Rifle Association (NRA), APA expressed its severe disappointment in comments made by Wayne LaPierre, the NRA executive vice president and CEO. APA took issue with LaPierre’s inaccurate assumption that horrendous crimes are commonly perpetrated by people with mental illness. “Only 4 percent to 5 percent of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness,” said Jeste in a press release responding to the NRA’s comments. “About one-quarter of all Americans have a mental disorder in any given year, and only a very small percentage of them will ever commit violent crimes.”
APA Medical Director James H. Scully Jr., M.D., said that LaPierre’s statements serve only to increase the stigma around mental illness and further the misconception that those with mental disorders are likely to be dangerous.
In an interview with Psychiatric News, Jeste expressed hope for a constructive outcome to the debate about the etiology of the Newtown tragedy: “There have been several examples in history when shocking events led to a meaningful and rational evaluation of the circumstances and resulted in the development and implementation of long-term solutions. We can hope that the unimaginable tragedy in Newtown will cause national soul searching and produce changes, not only in markedly improved mental health care, but also in reducing various other risk factors that promote senseless violence. Nothing else will bring justice to the innocent children and brave teachers who lost their lives in Newtown.” ■