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Editorial: State should share mental health records, cautiously

No one needs a gun to commit a murder, as the deaths of three New Hampshire residents in recent weeks demonstrate. Two were hacked to death and one was strangled. Nor are background checks for gun purchases, as some recent incidents of mass murder nationally prove, always capable of keeping weapons out of the hands of people with a history of a mental illness that might be at the root of the tragedy.

As Monitor reporter Annmarie Timmins noted last week, New Hampshire is one of a dozen states that have yet to share even minimal mental health records with the federal authorities charged with screening gun buyers. That has to change, but doing so won’t be easy. Great care will be required to protect the rights of the nearly 50 percent of Americans who, in a Harvard study, admit to having suffered, however briefly, from a psychiatric disorder and prevent the needless stigmatization of people with a mental illness. Yet it must be done.

John Zawahri, the young man charged with killing six people in a shooting spree in Santa Monica, Calif., last week, was evaluated psychiatrically seven years ago after making violent threats and being caught with bomb-making materials. He was nonetheless able to purchase the assault-style weapon used in the murders. Would such tragedies be prevented if states shared mental health records with the federal authorities who screen gun purchases? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to say, since even states that do share mental health records with federal screeners provide only limited data, According to a federal study reported by the Associated Press, 17 of the states that do share mental health records with federal authorities provided the records of fewer than 10 people. That means the checks that do exist offer little protection. The system must be improved.

Gov. Maggie Hassan has asked state lawmakers to study the problem and prepare legislation to allow the state to share mental health records with federal authorities so gun sellers are alerted when someone whose health history should prevent them from purchasing a weapon tries to buy one. We support that effort, but it should be guided by the wisdom demonstrated by veteran lawman Earl Sweeney, the assistant commissioner of the Department of Safety. Mental illness is an illness, not a crime, Sweeney told Timmins. “Mental illness can be treated . . . so there should be a way to make sure someone is not on (the database) for life if they are treated,” Sweeney said.

The rate of violence of people treated for mental illness is far lower than that for the population as a whole, but obviously people involuntarily committed to a mental hospital because they’ve been deemed a danger to themselves or others should be prevented from purchasing a firearm. But what if the commitment occurred decades ago? Should someone who voluntarily committed himself for anxiety or depression, say a hunter who wants to buy a new rifle, be turned away? How long should a ban last? Should someone who needs treatment or hospitalization after a breakup in his youth be forever barred from buying a gun? We think not.

Answering these questions will be tough. So far, the Legislature has avoided the task, but it will be remiss if it continues to do so. Whatever line is drawn won’t be fixed. It will have to move as science’s understanding of mental illness and medicine’s ability to treat it change.

Timmins began her story with this sentence: “For now, a person can be released from involuntary admission to the New Hampshire state hospital and buy a gun the same afternoon.” That does no one – the patient, family members, the public or gun dealers – any good. How New Hampshire joins the majority of states that submit mental health records to authorities who screen gun purchases remains to be decided. That it should do so is clear.

Legacy Comments7

It seems to me that there is a problem with the desired approach to linking health info to the database that is being overlooked. There are more people that have received mental heath services and pose less danger than than a man with a temper. There should be a system that doesn't have a blanket approach. I don't feel it is necessary to link actual health records thus violating privacy concerns, instead just flagging ones record for review if a purchase is attempted. Nothing will be fool proof or for that matter as effective as desired - but if we can even save a few lives we should do it. The only ones that should be upset are those that this restriction would effect. Now if we could restrict gun sales to the militia crazies that would be something.

Mental illness. I guess that depression could be termed a mental disorder. What about social anxiety disorder or just plain anxiety? What about a person with a fear of flying and taking XANAX for that, I have a friend who needs it? Should these things be shared with the federal government? NO mental health records besides those of people who are a true danger should be shared. Soon the government will have all of our information, phone records, email records, medical records and faceless bureaucrats will be calling the shots in many aspects of our lives. It is dangerous for the federal government to have ANY personal information. Sorry!

(CNSNews.com) -- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention says that at any given moment about a quarter of American adults are mentally ill and that over the course of their lifetimes about half of all Americans will develop at least one mental illness. .........that should make liberals nervous for obvious reasons

Just when liberals thought it was safe to start identifying themselves as such, an acclaimed, veteran psychiatrist is making the case that the ideology motivating them is actually a mental disorder. “Based on strikingly irrational beliefs and emotions, modern liberals relentlessly undermine the most important principles on which our freedoms were founded,” says Dr. Lyle Rossiter, author of the new book, “The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness.” “Like spoiled, angry children, they rebel against the normal responsibilities of adulthood and demand that a parental government meet their needs from cradle to grave.”

LOL!!! http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Lyle_Rossiter

The states are asked to report cases voluntarily. Many states report none. Many Doctors who treat mental illness are reluctant to release any info on their patients, until after the fact. No Doctor can predict when or if their patient will stop taking meds, and go into a freefall. The idea that only folks who are committed are the problem is also incorrect. Look who has committed these crimes, many have not been committed, but have had issues at school, loners etc. But what many of these crimes have in common is that the red flags where there and ignored. And many laws tie the hands of parents with young adults who need to be committed.

The editorial begins by stating New Hampshire has seen three recent murders that did not involve firearms but then goes on to use a few highly publicized incidents to justify elimination of privacy and confidentiality of medical records and the perpetuation of stigma around mental illness. The terribly unfortunate events like Newtown and Aurora are simply another version of "plane crash" media coverage. They are not the greatest threat to safety but receive the widest coverage based solely on sensationalism. Psychologists and psychiatrists, per their ethical codes, have an affirmative responsibility to protect others. That is where the responsibility should lie for reporting individuals that may be a threat to themselves or others. Based on that sort of standard, I would think that approximately ten individuals per state sounds about right.

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