To Reduce Gun Violence, Congress Must Address Mental Health

To Reduce Gun Violence, Congress Must Address Mental Health
AP Photo/John Minchillo
To Reduce Gun Violence, Congress Must Address Mental Health
AP Photo/John Minchillo
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In Washington, nobody takes responsibility for the cost of bad policies and nobody is the least bit interested in drilling down to address the root causes of our nation’s gun violence crisis.  Americans are all too familiar and fed up with politicians who revert to extremist positions as solutions that have no chance of generating broad support.  And so, the number of families suffering multiplies and nothing gets done.  We can and we must do better.

It may come as a surprise to people who followed my public life in Congress for eight years, but in the 1980s and early 1990s I was a provider of mental health care, operating a 50-bed facility in Canton, Ohio.  It was always  full of patients who were in need of mental health care.  We did some great work that made a difference in the lives of thousands of families and our reputation was such that there was always a waiting list for admissions.

And then the federal and state policymakers got involved, cutting the funding for mental health through the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and we were forced to shut down.  (The facility was converted for elder care – which was needed.) We discharged those residents only because government bureaucrats decided patients in need of mental health care were not covered. Where did they end up?  Who cared for them?  We know the answer to the second question: no one.

It was a horrible mistake for Washington to cut support for so many Americans.  Like many of us, every time someone commits a mass murder I search to understand how anyone could do so. Because there is something fundamentally wrong with anyone willing to commit such a heinous crime, the conversation often drifts toward the subject of mental health.

Guns do not belong in the hands of the mentally ill.  Each is a threat to themselves and society.  Two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides and nobody who is in need of care should have a rifle, a shotgun, or a pistol.  We have to do more to identify and care for the nearly one in five adults struggling with mental health.  We have to do more to destigmatize care.  And we have to keep the focus on the individual.

Being a strong, steadfast supporter of the Second Amendment is not and should not be in conflict with addressing mental health and access to guns.  Responsible gun owners such as me would never put a firearm in the hands of someone suffering from mental illness or showing well-known warning signs of potential violence.  Health care professionals have a role to play.  Families, friends and co-workers need to listen to their gut instincts when something feels suddenly wrong.  And tech companies like Facebook, Google and Gab must face intensified scrutiny over their failures to identify and report “red flag” content to authorities.

I believe a renewed focus on searching for warning signs and improving access to mental health services and treatment is long overdue.  To my great frustration, bills that I supported in Congress to make it easier for those with mental illnesses to seek help -- by amending Medicaid to allow for the coverage of mental health services and expand mental health training -- found no support in the Senate.

When Congress returns from its August recess, the Democrats and Republicans in power must move beyond the tired talking points of special interests on both sides and focus on real, sustainable solutions.  Inaction is not an option.  Banning certain types of guns is not an option.  But improving mental health care and forcing tech companies to alert the public of potential danger are options.

This is a time for pragmatism.  Americans can get things done, together, that make our homes, our schools and our cities safer.  The root of our problem is in the individuals who are responsible for their actions and the solution is improving access to professional care and medication.

I believe that one day Congress will wake up and start to work again for the people.  Democrats and Republicans surely understand mental illness knows no age, race, gender or political affiliation.  This summer, it’s on all of us, the people, to force Congress to make progress in protecting the public.  And it starts with Congress doing everything in its power to help those who need care or seek care to be treated effectively, efficiently, and with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Jim Renacci represented Ohio’s 16th Congressional District from 2011 to 2019.



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