Health Association in New York State, Inc.
Friday Fax from Albany
The Never Ending Battle Against Stigma: Each and every time an individual with a mental health record commits a violent crime, the one known survivor is stigma. Last month, in Lynbrook, Long Island, a priest and a parishioner were shot during a morning mass. The accused, a man by the name of Peter J. Troy, has in the past been hospitalized for his mental health needs, and was unsuccessfully being subjected to an Involuntary Outpatient Commitment.
As usual, when a person with a mental health history is accused of a crime, that history breaks free of the information blackout that goes with all criminal investigations, although curiously, no other information does.
And often, the headlines that ensue raise the issue to a level of debate tantamount to frenzy. This is certainly the case with the matter of Peter J. Troy.
On Monday, April 8th, New York's Senior Senator in Washington, Charles Schumer, a long-time advocate for services, treatment and privacy protection, announced that he would be introducing a bill to link involuntary psychiatric hospitalization records to the computer system that does criminal background checks for potential gun purchasers. Senator Schumer proposed $1.25 billion in funding for the proposal, to be spent on compiling and transmitting these records.
Wednesday, MHANYS President/CEO Joseph A. Glazer, Esq., sent a letter to the Senator, urging him to reconsider the proposal. The text of the letter is as follows:
In the many years we have known each other, I have always found you to be an insightful, thoughtful and compassionate leader. However, I must encourage you to reconsider this planned legislation.
Simply put, it is erroneous, prejudicial, discriminatory and stigmatizing to equate a person receiving mental health treatment with criminality, as your proposal does. There is no factual basis to link a person who receives help for their mental health needs and some non-existent connection to increased gun violence.
Studies show that there is no relationship between being treated for a mental illness and a potential for violence. In fact, a Duke/North Carolina State University study concluded that a person recently released from a psychiatric hospital is 250% more likely to be the victim of a crime than a perpetrator.
According to a 1998 study by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, "The prevalence of violence among people who have been discharged from a [psychiatric] hospital and who do not have symptoms of substance abuse is about the same as the prevalence of violence among other people living in their communities who do not have symptoms of substance abuse."
Yes, we know that the accused, Peter J. Troy, had been hospitalized for mental health needs in the past, and we know that he had recently slipped through the cracks of the mental health care system in his community. While the investigation into this crime continues, we cannot learn all the details surrounding the incident - not even the motive. Stigma and discrimination are the reason that when a violent incident occurs, authorities make the greatest effort to keep secret all the other facts and information, except for the accused's mental health history. How many times have we found that to be irrelevant long after the headlines have screamed it at us?
Over the past three years, you have joined with many organizations in opposing efforts to undermine the privacy of medical records at the state and national level. Mental health records are medical records, and have the same level of privacy attached to them as the records of a person living with cancer or diabetes. Your legislation has the potential to violate that long standing tenet, one that you have strenuously supported.
Senator, it is important to remember that Andrew Goldstein slipped through the cracks in New York's mental health system in 1999, resulting in the Involuntary Outpatient Commitment Law. Three years later, Peter Troy also fell through. People will continue to slip through the cracks until we fill them. (Our state and federal governments have failed to do so.)
MHANYS is no stranger to the issue of gun violence. In 1999, this organization led an effort in cooperation with several groups to try to address issues of gun violence, especially in schools. We continue to believe that the real issue here is the number of guns in our society. We have too many guns on our streets, in our homes and in our schools. Adding mental health information to a database does nothing more than invade people's most private medical records and equally importantly, further stigmatizes mental illness, while doing nothing to reduce the presence of guns.
Less than a handful of fingers will count the number of people living with mental illnesses who will attempt to legally purchase a gun to commit murder. This proposal is not the right answer.
Your proposal includes $250 million a year for five years to be spent on the collection and dissemination of this data. That money would be better spent fixing our mental health system. At this very moment, we are continuing our efforts to get direct care workers in mental health a living wage, to better our treatment system, and stem the staff vacancy rates that approach 50% in some of our programs.
How many new case managers would that $1.25 billion bring into our system? How many community-based programs would that money shore up? How many people would get the treatment they need, and have full access to the entire array of necessary medications, the diminution of which Congress has stood by and watched?
Your endeavor to address gun violence through criminal background checks is laudable, and one we support. But criminal background checks are for criminals. Money spent in pursuit of issues of mental health should be spent in treating mental health, not stigmatizing it.