Law doesn't improve care for mentally ill
by Arjune Rama, MD
Like my fellow Connecticut residents still shaken by the Newtown
shootings, I was excited and relieved when Connecticut Senate Bill 1160
(“An Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety”)
passed April 3.
The law establishes a dangerous weapons offenders
registry and requires a universal background check for all gun
purchases. Those wishing to purchase long guns will need an eligibility
certificate that requires fingerprints, a firearms safety training
course and a national criminal background check.
No firearm may be loaded with greater than 10 bullets except in a person’s home or at a shooting range.
However, as a mental health care provider, I am infuriated by one section in particular:
10. (NEW) (Effective October 1, 2013) Whenever a person is voluntarily
admitted to a hospital … for care and treatment of a psychiatric
disability … the hospital shall forthwith notify the Commissioner of
Mental Health and Addiction Services of such admission and provide
identifying information including, but not limited to, name, address,
sex, date of birth and the date of admission. The commissioner shall
maintain such identifying information on all such admissions.”
other words, starting this fall, if someone comes to our emergency
department asking to be admitted to the hospital for mental health care,
our service is obligated to report his or her name, address, sex, date
of birth and the date of admission to the state government.
have to make my patients aware that they are welcome to treatment, but
will also become a part of a growing database, even if their illness is
completely unrelated to guns or violence. While this may not seem
particularly problematic, consider the delicate scenarios in which
people are voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric unit.
octogenarians for whom the death of a spouse has driven them to the
brink of suicide. These are college students with new-onset
schizophrenia trying to understand why their roommates have placed
tracking devices in their brains. These are people freshly laid-off
figuring out how to handle their frustration. These people are
entrusting us with their most private pain.
Prior to reading the
legislation, I thought that perhaps we were entering a period wherein
mental health care would receive higher priority. I thought that we as a
society finally realized that mental illness is a cage in which our
patients find themselves. Instead, I am realizing that the Connecticut
law serves to strengthen the bars of that cage, expand the cage itself
and put tracking tags on everyone in it.
While this legislation
has some groundbreaking provisions that will undoubtedly save lives, I
hope that our lawmakers realize the potential outcomes for some of our
most desperate citizens. Those looking for solace to prevent possibly
killing themselves may think twice to present to the emergency room to
avoid being documented on a government list.
For the same reason,
those with bubbling anger may similarly choose to take matters into
their own hands rather than to responsibly seek help.
In sum, the
mental health provisions in this law do not improve care for the
mentally ill. Rather, these provisions improve the containment and
tracking of the mentally ill. By attempting to contain and track rather
than treat and prevent, we may inadvertently lose more lives as a