A chance to improve mental health care

Mental health has recently become a popular talking point among Republican pundits. They note that many of those who carried out mass shootings in this country were mentally ill, such as Connecticut elementary school killer Adam Lanza (2012), Colorado movie theater killer James Holmes (2012), Tuscon, Ariz. shooter Jared Loughner (2011), and Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho (2007).

And many of them obtained their weapons by legal means, unlikely to be changed by legislation.

Therefore, conservatives say, the best way to prevent the next mass murder is mental health treatment and threat assessment, rather than stricter gun laws that mostly affect law-abiding citizens.

That makes a lot of sense, although we also favor a certain amount of sensible gun control. It also seems that this opportunity for common ground with Democrats shouldn’t be passed up.

This isn’t just about looking for potential killers. Mental health services in this country and state are deeply inadequate. Anyone who thinks otherwise is probably unaware, uncaring or a lawmaker looking for budget cuts.

Our society certainly improved its mental health services over the course of the last century. The scandals of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island and the Willowbrook State School are part of our past, mistakes that have taught hard lessons. Mentally ill people’s human rights are respected much better now, but it’s been a rocky road moving them from institutional care to regular life in the community, often with little support, structure or boundary lines. Many of them aren’t happy with it, and many others aren’t, either. When they opt not to accept help or take medication, they’re too often left at loose ends. Many of these people won’t hurt anyone, but some do harm to themselves, through self-neglect or poor care, and some get so far out that they do hurt others.

States like ours can do better.

An unintended consequence of our current situation is that when mentally ill people have problems, it’s often police who deal with them. We hope our police officers have human sympathy and some training for this sort of thing, but better emergency mental health care is needed, including support to help police pick out the most dangerous situations.

A small unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation may be paving the way for state governments in search of a system that could help prevent mass shootings.

According to the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, nearly 150 shootings and violent attacks were stopped this year by helping local authorities assess the threat presented by a person of concern. The Behavioral Threat Assessment Center then makes case-by-case recommendations: an arrest, if there has been illegal activity, mental health care or some other option.

By many accounts, such an assessment might have stopped gunmen like Mr. Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. He was described by too many who knew him as troubled, with a fascination with violence that was apparent to teachers and acquaintances. But his case did not reach the small FBI unit that might have stopped him and gotten him help.

States and other federal agencies need their own units like this. Though the FBI has reportedly stopped hundreds of incidents since 2011, it is, sadly, too great a task for one small group of people.

This shouldn’t mean a backslide on the rights of the mentally ill. They can and should be respected at all times. Red flags, however, shouldn’t be ignored.

It won’t be perfect. These agents’ judgment can’t be right every time, but if they are thoroughly trained in mental illnesses and the laws related to them, and if they’re accountable for their actions, their help would almost certainly be preferable to having local authorities deal with these situations on their own.

After Sandy Hook, President Barack Obama said, “We’re going to need to work on making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to a gun,” but he quickly got caught up in a national gun-control campaign and has not since promoted programs like the Behavioral Analysis Unit. It may not be perfect, but it might be a template for a first step toward improving access to mental health care. That should be something leaders of all political persuasions can agree on.