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Mental healthcare at root of curbing mass shootings

Gun control is one of those hot button issues that invites the partisan grandstanding and bickering that plagues our leaders in state and national government. But if there’s one point that the Obama administration and the NRA appear to agree on, it’s that our mental healthcare system needs some work.

As far as I can tell, it’s even more of a patchwork system than the traditional physical healthcare system and it has little in the way of an early warning mechanism that could prevent mass shootings before they happen.

It’s all too easy to dismiss the trigger men in mass shooting cases as crazy, evil or deranged and to blame their families, friends or coworkers for not doing something to stop them from committing such heinous crimes.

That pretty much gets society at large off the hook from taking responsibility for these murders or taking any action to prevent them in the future.

Deep down though, I think we all know that reducing the frequency and deadliness of mass shootings will take a collective effort to be more vigilant of each other’s behavior.

But even then, who do you call when you think there may be a problem?

Today, you can basically access psychiatric treatment in one of two ways.

You can check yourself into a mental hospital, which depending on where you live can be very far from home, and hope they take your insurance plan, provided your plan even covers mental healthcare. Or, if you become a danger to yourself or others, the police will haul you off to that mental hospital for a few days or a few years, depending on how unstable you’ve become.

Again, that facility may not be in close proximity, making the transition back home more rocky without support from family or local outpatient services.

Doesn’t sound like a comprehensive system, does it? Sounds like people could fall through the cracks. I’m sure they do.

Perhaps they don’t want treatment or feel like they don’t need it. Maybe they self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Or maybe they simply don’t have the resources to pay for treatment.

We need a better mental health system, one that can detect symptoms before paranoid delusions, violent impulses or severe depression manifest into mass murder.

Unfortunately, there’s much less discussion on this side of the gun violence debate.

Here in Baker County, for many years there’s been a place for the most at-risk residents with mental health disorders to access treatment, the Northeast Florida State Hospital-affiliated Community Behavioral Healthcare Services clinic on West Lowder Street.

But after June 30, the office will close by order of the state, and at this point at least, it’s unclear what entity will take its place.

A Tampa-based nonprofit, Lutheran Services of Florida, has been hired by the state to contract with a replacement provider in the coming months. It’s all apart of the state’s effort to privatize state-funded programs, ostensibly to save money.

However, bid disputes or procurement hiccups could occur, causing delays in the change over and leaving local patients without a local provider. Even after a new provider is selected, there’s no guarantee it will open offices here.

Patients, particularly those without reliable transportation, could fall behind on medication or miss consultations with doctors, both of which could deteriorate their mental state and endanger themselves and those around them.

Such fears have been expressed by public health workers here and steps should be taken to make the transition to the new provider as seamless as possible.

At the state and national level, changes are needed as well.

Mental health consistently takes a back seat to physical health in our country, especially in terms of government funding.

Per capita in 2010, Florida spent the third lowest per capita amount in the nation on mental health services, $39.55, according to the Kaiser Health Foundation. Idaho ($36.64) and Texas ($38.99) were the first and second lowest in per capita spending.

At the federal level, universal background checks on gun purchases, mandatory registration and more enforcement of those measures and other laws now on the books could all reduce gun violence, whether by criminals or the mentally ill; all without diminishing Second Amendment protections or the ability of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves against criminals.

I don’t buy the argument that registration is the first step in the government taking away our guns. Uncle Sam doesn’t want our guns. He’s got plenty and we’re pathetically out-matched anyway. Tanks trump assault rifles 100 percent of the time.

All-out bans on assault rifles or other weapons, however, are misguided. I’m hoping they’ve only been proposed by the Obama administration as pawns to be sacrificed in negotiations to get the universal background checks passed. We’ll see.

Banning specific guns would result in fewer legal sales, which is why the NRA and their bosses, the gun manufacturers, oppose such bans. It’s not really about the Constitution, it’s business.

But a ban would also leave most of us with little defense against criminals with access to the banned weapon via the black market. Cops can’t be everywhere all the time.

I hope our leaders can put the political posturing aside and focus on common-sense gun regulations that will do a better job of keeping firearms away from criminals and the mentally unhinged. Making the mental health system more accessible and better at identifying potentially violent individuals before they become so will also go a long way in solving this national dilemma.

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