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Obama gun plan looks at addressing mental health care while toeing a tight line

Published: Friday, Jan. 18 2013 11:17 a.m. MST

This Jan. 16, 2013 file photo shows President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, gesturing as he talks about proposals to reduce gun violence, in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington. (Associated Press) This Jan. 16, 2013 file photo shows President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, gesturing as he talks about proposals to reduce gun violence, in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington. (Associated Press)

After the Sandy Hook shooting, much of the nation's attention focused on the ubiquity of guns and the means to keep them out of the hands of killers.

But a less noisy undercurrent focused on what people have described as a woefully inadequate mental health care system, which leaves many parents, teachers and counselors without adequate resources to respond when someone slips off the rails.

When President Barack Obama announced his push to reduce gun violence Wednesday morning, he nodded in the direction of mental health care.

"We will make sure mental health professionals know their options for reporting threats of violence," Obama said in his prepared statement, "even as we acknowledge that someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator."

Obama's language here reflects a fine line negotiated by all policymakers speaking on mental health, as they try to frame policies to identify risks and keep guns out of the hands of unstable people, without stigmatizing those who need help or discouraging them from seeking it.

However, regulating the access of firearms to unstable persons does seem to be one place where consensus seems possible.

“If you’re talking about reinstating the assault weapons ban or some other effort that’s been made in recent years, we don’t find that those things would lead to preventing these types of activities from occurring,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said, The New York Times reported. “But we certainly in terms of background checks, in terms of keeping weapons out of the hands of criminals and people who have serious mental health difficulties, we want to do that and we would take a close look at that.”

Of the 23 executive actions the president announced Wednesday, four specifically target mental illness. These include clarifying the mental health requirements under Medicaid and finalizing mental health regulations for new health care plans.

Obama's statement was echoed by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who released a statement acknowledging that "the vast majority of Americans with a mental illness are not violent, but we also know that more than 60 percent of people who experience mental illness do not receive treatment and that crisis situations can develop without proper treatment."

Sebelius also noted that the Affordable Care Act aims to break barriers to insurance coverage for mental illness.

"HHS intends to join with private and public partners to launch a yearlong national dialogue on youth and mental illness," Sebelius said, "engaging parents, peers, and teachers to reduce negative attitudes toward people with mental illness, to recognize the warning signs, and to enhance access to treatment."

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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