Sequelae of Newtown

The Newtown shooting forced the nation and its policymakers to confront the darkest and least comprehensible aspects of human behavior. Once again, and to varying degrees of logic, the trifecta of violent media, gun control, and mental health are cast into a political and emotional storm in which parties on all sides attempt to assign blame. Some are trying to understand how such a tragedy could occur; otSequelae of Newtownhers want to believe that some combination of concrete measures could, in fact, prevent such a tragedy from ever reoccurring; and still others are invested largely in protecting their own industries and livelihoods.

Of course, I have my own stances on these hot-button issues, informed by personal conviction, professional affiliation, and plenty of other idiosyncratic biases. I made no secret — in the wake of the recent Aurora shooting — of my feelings on gun control (i.e., there should be much more of it), and I felt President Obama’s post-Newtown call for change mirrored many of my own sentiments. At the same time, I consider myself to be ethically and professionally responsible for advocating on behalf of the countless individuals with diagnosed mental illness who risk stigma and disenfranchisement in the wake of such powerful and catalyzing events. (I’m also not a fan of blaming violent media for society’s ills.)

So it was with great dismay that I learned that earlier this week, in the guise of a new gun bill, New York legislators have passed a law that, in my estimation, will hurt many and help few.

The law requires therapists to report any patients “likely to engage” in violent behavior in order to make them known to law enforcement agencies and be entered into a background-check database. First of all, “likely to engage” is an ill-defined assessment and one which even forensic psychologists (who will typically not be the clinicians in the position of deciding whether or not to report a patient) find incredibly difficult to make, as the base rates of violent and suicidal behavior in the mentally ill and general populations are so low.

Therefore, this law and any like-minded proposals on the federal level are rife with limitations while providing almost no benefits, other than the transient sense that something has been “done” without taking on the ever-intimidating gun lobby. The measures the new law puts forth only serve to further stigmatize those seeking psychological treatment; potentially violate those individuals’ civil rights, as mandated reporting can result in confiscation of legally owned weapons; decrease the likelihood that those in acute distress will disclose important thoughts, feelings, and impulses to their therapist; enlarge the group of individuals considered at risk for violent behavior to unmanageable proportions, even though most will never be violent; and inhibit the work of therapists by further impeding on the sanctity of therapist-patient confidentiality.

This law would not have prevented the Newtown massacre and cannot be its legacy. Crisis affords opportunity, and we cannot afford to be complacent when unsatisfactory solutions are proffered. I encourage those so inclined to contact your elected officials regarding your opinions on the myriad policies being proposed and enacted on state and federal levels in reaction to recent catastrophes.

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