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Editorial: U.S. needs mental health facilities and gun reform, please

When President Donald Trump renewed his call for “building new facilities” for the mentally ill to reduce mass shootings, you could almost hear the hackles of the internet collectively stand on end – and it’s easy to understand why.

Many on the left and in the center view the rallying cry of “mental health” as an attempt to shift the national conversation away from meaningful gun reforms. And there could be concerns of a return to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” institutionalization. What an incredible pity the need for investment in mental health resources and reasonable gun reforms like red-flag laws and background checks threaten to become yet more political footballs.

More institutions most likely will not reduce mass shootings, as Trump claims. A new report by the National Council for Behavioral Health notes “many, if not most, perpetrators (of mass violence) do not have a major psychiatric disorder, and … the large majority of people with diagnosable mental illnesses are not violent toward others.”

But the disappearance of long-term-care psychiatric facilities and beds has escalated over the past decade – sparked by advocates’ work starting in the 1950s to deinstitutionalize psychiatric patients. That action was needed. But, unfortunately, there were few services created to take their place.

Meanwhile, a study in the journal Psychiatric Services estimates 3.4% of Americans – more than 8 million people – suffer from serious psychological problems.

Both that and the addiction crisis are apparent across the nation and in Albuquerque. Many of the thousands of the homeless individuals sleeping on our streets, in our parks and begging on our medians have mental health and/or addiction issues.

A Sunday Journal story noted that last year, the Albuquerque Police Department answered more than 6,000 behavioral health calls – more than 16 a day, and that’s down slightly from the year before. The number of calls has been in the thousands since at least 2010. John Hyde and James Boyd are household names synonymous with local, deadly mental-health crises.

So while investing heavily in mental health resources likely would not have stopped El Paso, Odessa or Dayton, it could save lives by reducing the number of suicides, shootings by law enforcement, domestic violence calls, overdoses due to self-medicating, and more. Not to mention easing the pain for people (and their families) because their mental illness is undiagnosed, untreated or self-treated.

There is a pressing need for mental health services in New Mexico and across the country. We don’t have nearly enough clinicians. Dr. Mauricio Tohen, the chairman of the University of New Mexico’s psychiatry department, wrote recently “there is a critical shortage of psychiatrists in the state of New Mexico, as well as nationally.”

We don’t have enough mid-level providers, either. Just try to make an appointment for something like grief counseling and get ready to wait months.

We don’t have enough options for in-patient care. Many resources – like health care at the state psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas or the Metropolitan Detention Center west of Albuquerque – are reserved for “forensic” patients who have committed a crime. And law enforcement officers inform us there’s a dearth of short-term crisis care. What’s a patrol officer to do with someone clearly in the throes of psychiatric crisis who hasn’t committed a crime? These folks don’t belong in jail or a hospital emergency room – but too often that’s the only recourse other than doing nothing.

So yes, more needs to be done to help those suffering mental health issues.

Locally, positive changes are happening. The state is proposing a $78.5 million increase in annual Medicaid spending to boost access to mental health and health care services in rural areas. Bernalillo County is rolling out a Tiny Homes village and services for foster kids who age out and for trafficked youth. Albuquerque has a $14 million low-barrier, 24/7 homeless shelter on the fall ballot that won’t raise taxes.

These efforts could actually help, but more is needed. Let’s ditch the either/or mental health vs. gun control illusion. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.


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