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It is time to make mental health care a permanent national priority, not just in the days after tragedies.

Statement from the Board of NAMI Massachusetts

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., it’s important to consider what is contained in the proposals being contemplated, changes both to America’s gun laws and within our Mental Health system.

We support steps to keep highly lethal weapons out of the hands of any dangerous individual, whether or not they have mental illness. It is vital not to use a broad brush to implicate millions of individuals with mental illness, through distribution of databases, with names. Most violent crimes, including gun crimes, are committed by people who do not have a mental illness, and the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are victims of crimes, not perpetrators.

We know that one in four Americans will experience mental health problem, and 1 in 17 will live with a serious mental illness throughout a large portion of their life. Creating a database of up to 75 million people is not the answer. An all-encompassing database reinforces stigma and labels, and creates fear. Mental illnesses, at the actual rate of common occurrence, are a normal part of humanity.

For many reasons, including safety, it is critical for people with mental illnesses to have early access and be able to receive effective treatment. Some of the proposed laws under discussion – requiring disclosure of confidential treatment information – have the potential to severely undermine the trust between patient and therapist that is fundamental to the success of the treatment that can bring recovery.

Under some proposals, databases of information would be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) on people “committed to any mental institution” or “adjudicated as mentally defective.” This term is confusing and offensive. The reality is that thousands with symptoms of these illnesses suffer, yet many lead highly productive lives. Some hold PhDs, JDs, LICSW, or are CEOs.

It’s far easier to buy a gun in the U.S. than to access mental health care.

Since 2008, America has cut $4 billion from its already ailing public mental health system. Many community mental health programs have disappeared and more than 4,000 psychiatric hospital beds have been eliminated. It is increasingly difficult to get help, and most can’t get help until they go into crisis.

When more focus is placed on mental health screening, early intervention, evidence-based mental health treatment and services, and family education and support, the entire community receives the benefits. Inclusion of mental health care as an “essential health benefit” in the Affordable Care Act is an important recent step in making recovery from mental illness a national priority.

It is time to make mental health care a permanent national priority, not just in the days after tragedies.

NAMI Mass supports NAMI National and the opinion Ron Honberg director of policy and legal affairs quoted in this statement.