APA Talks Gun Violence, Mental Illness at the White House

Deborah Brauser

January 10, 2013

A representative of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) met with members of Vice President Joe Biden's Task Force on Gun Violence yesterday at the White House to discuss changes to the country's mental health system.

Dr. Paul Appelbaum

"We are facing an opportunity to begin rebuilding a system of care that has been decimated over the last decades by the progressive withdrawal of resources in both the private and public sectors," said Paul Appelbaum, MD, past president of the APA and current chair of its Committee on Judicial Action, in a release.

Dr. Appelbaum, who is also a professor of psychiatry, medicine, and law and director of the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City, added that approximately 96% of violent crimes are perpetrated by people who do not have mental disorders.

"That is not an argument for inaction, but it does suggest that focusing on people with mental illness alone is not likely to be a successful strategy for gun violence reduction," he said in his written comments to the Task Force.

Still, he noted that the recent mass shootings in this country have opened a discussion on how treatment of mental illness might be improved, including rebuilding the system of care currently in place, in the wake of drastic cuts in funding for these services.

"Public sector appropriations alone have dropped by $4 billion over the last 4 years," he reported.

Four-Part Proposal

During his meeting with the Task Force, Dr. Appelbaum presented a 4-part outline designed to address these issues. They included the following:

  • Appointing a presidential commission to "develop a vision" for a better system of mental healthcare;

  • Designating a White House staffer as point person for facilitating responses from the Administration;

  • Improving early identification of those with mental health problems; and

  • Developing "sensible, nondiscriminatory approaches to keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous people."

He noted as an example of a commonsense approach an Indiana statute that "empowers law enforcement officers to seize weapons from persons who by their behavior indicate a likelihood of committing violent acts."

"Evaluation of the statute's operation has shown that although a majority of people whose weapons are seized are perceived to have a mental illness, many do not," said Dr. Appelbaum. Instead, these people are more often involved in substance abuse and domestic disputes.

As reported by Medscape Medical News, the vice president–led task force was created in the wake of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The group is expected to make recommendations for ways to prevent future tragedies, including possibly calling for changes in gun control laws, as early as next week.