One week after an 18-year-old gunman murdered 21 people, including 19 children, opponents of reasonable gun restrictions continue to shift the focus to other possible causes, including a lack of mental health services.
“We need to look at what is causing these attacks,” said Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri. “Are there mental health problems that we can address?” she asked.
“We need to continue working to ensure anyone who has a mental or behavioral health issue can get the treatment they need, when they need it,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri told the PBS NewsHour.
“We as a state, we as a society, need to do a better job with mental health,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Americans should not be misled. The problem is individual access to high-powered weaponry, not just mental illness. There is no indication the Uvalde, Texas, shooter sought mental health counseling. There’s no evidence better services would have prevented this particular slaughter.
Moreover, emphasizing mental health concerns after mass killings unfairly malign millions of Americans who are dealing with depression and other issues. Not everyone who seeks help plans to shoot someone else. In fact, blaming mental illness for gun violence may deter some patients from seeking help when they need it.
The first and most important answer for gun violence is fewer guns, period.
At the same time, improving mental health treatment in this country is essential on its own terms. More than one-third of adult Missourians reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in just one week last fall; in Kansas, the figure was 29%.
The coronavirus crisis tripled the number of people facing mental health issues. “In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health conditions have been exacerbated,” the Kaiser Family Foundation reports.
Mental illness hurts patients, families and friends. It damages the economy. It causes suffering and, on occasion, violence.
This year, lawmakers in Kansas and Missouri — flush with cash — made some welcome additional investments in mental health services. But there is much, much more to do.
In 2022, according to Mental Health America, an advocacy group, Missouri ranked 41st in the nation in access to mental health care. Kansas, which refuses to expand Medicaid, was even worse, at 44th in the country. Those are calling numbers.
Mental health services for children in both states are substandard. In Kansas, there is one school psychologist for every 1,157 students. One study found. Missouri’s ratio is one psychologist per 4,867 students.
The recommended ratio is 1-500.
“We need more mental health professionals in our schools,” said National Education Association President Becky Pringle.
“We have a children’s mental health crisis,” said a recent statement from Sherrie Vaughn, executive director of the Kansas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
In Kansas and Missouri, it’s still too hard to find mental health service providers and to pay the costs of treatment. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people in both states suffer, mostly in silence.
Both states must continue to increase spending on mental health services and availability. After that, though, there is more to do: Legislators must link mental health treatment with the ability to buy or hold a weapon.
Both Kansas and Missouri lack so-called “red flag laws,” which allow courts to temporarily restrict firearms possession for those who are a proven threat to themselves or others. Both states should pass such laws.
To his credit, Blunt has said he is open to a national red flag law. Congress should act if states do not. There is no reason someone in a mental health crisis should have access to a weapon.
America has too many guns. It also has too many people who need help with mental illness. We should work on the first problem, and, at the same time, work on the second.