Mental health experts fear being used. Specifically, that the cause they have dedicated themselves to could be used as a smokescreen, a diversionary tactic, a glowing red ball of distraction.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott repeatedly raised the specter of mental health during a press conference about the recent massacre of school children in his state.
And former President Donald Trump also focused on mental health in part of his speech Friday as the National Rifle Association (NRA) kicked off its annual convention in Houston.
Gun control? Abbott dismissed the idea that it could help reduce mass shootings, saying 18-year-olds in Texas have had access to long guns for decades.
Abbott instead pointed to worsening mental health: “We, as a state and as a society, need to do a better job of mental health.”
This puts mental illness on a long list of factors that conservative commentators have focused on after the school shooting in Uvalde – one who also understands higher school fences; fewer doors; arm teachers; deploying armed veterans to schools; distribution of bulletproof blankets; restore Judeo-Christian values; and the overall goal of reversing the moral rot of society.
People who work in the mental health field are happy to talk about their field and how to make things better. But following Abbott’s remarks, several expressed discomfort for using it to stifle the conversation about gun control.
This includes a Texas government mental health adviser who says basic comparative statistics discredit the idea that mental illness is a key factor in mass shootings in the United States.
What is not negligible is the difference in homicide rates: the American rate is several times higher than Canada, which itself has a higher rate than most developed countries.
“You can’t attribute the difference to mental illness. You just can’t,” said Dr. Stephen Strakowski, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin who is portion Texas has redesigned its care delivery model in many counties across the state.
“All you do is look at the data. All countries have the same rates of mental illness. What sets them apart is how they deal with guns.”
A University of Texas colleague shared her own reluctance to discuss mental health in a context where it could be used to distract from the gun control debate.
“It feels like a game of straw men. I don’t think that’s a real concern of our governor,” said Sarah Bearman, a researcher who specializes in empirically supported practices for underserved youth.
“It’s remarkable how quickly [mental illness is] used as a scapegoat for gun violence. Texas has more guns per capita than any other state. America has more guns per capita than any other country. And we are unprecedented in gun violence. The outlier isn’t mental health issues – it’s access to guns.”
50th out of 50
That being said, what exactly is Texas doing when it comes to mental health care? The state’s long-term record is dismal, with some further efforts to improve.
Texas is ranked dead last among 50 U.S. states for providing mental health services, 2022 study finds study by Mental Health America, a nonprofit mental health advocacy organization.
Last month, Abbott cut US$210 million for the State Department, which oversees mental health.
The shortcomings of the Texas mental health system have been exposed in a series of investigations by The Houston Chronicle which found a system plagued by low numbers, violent assaults and uninvestigated deaths.
It begins with an elderly couple discovering that their son died in an underfunded facility and struggling to get information about his death. Another man whose son died after going in and out of the system said: “They just run [the mentally ill] through like a cattle alley.”
But there is another side to the story.
Texas has recently attempted to turn a corner on this front, and Strakowski is one of them in many counties, where he is leading an ambitious project.
A recently completed facility in Austin includes a cafe, gym, art room, outdoor basketball court and walking paths.
“They have [tried]actually,” Strakowski said of state government.
“Texas has made real investments in mental health. I think [Abbott] can say that and it’s factually correct.… Does that mean Texas leads in mental health care? Absolutely not.”
One of the main reasons Texas is ranked last by Mental Health America is the lack of access to care through health insurance.
Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents of any state, at 18%, twice the national average. People with mental illness have a 21.5% uninsured rate in Texas, nearly six times higher than Massachusetts’ rate of 3.8%.
And why its uninsured rate is so low directly depends on decisions made by state politicians, including Abbott.
Medicaid extension rejected
The way that the The US healthcare system works in a nutshell about two-thirds of insured people get it from private companies, and about a third get it through two public programs: one for the elderly (Medicare) and a federal state program for older Americans. poorest (Medicaid).
But just under 10% of Americans have no health coverage.
Texas happens to be one of the few conservative-leaning states to turn down a federal offer that would have extended health care to low-income people.
The health reform bill signed by then-President Barack Obama expanded Medicaid to cover more people, up to 133 percent of the poverty level. Here’s Washington’s offer: $9 to a state government for every dollar invested by the state to expand the Medicaid program.
Because of this expansion of Medicaid under the so-called Obamacare laws, 21 million Americans acquired health coverage This year.
Bearman says there are gaps throughout the mental health system, including staffing shortages, waiting lists for care, poor quality of care in some cases, and discrepancies in how health physical and mental is assured.
“Of course we need better mental health treatment,” Bearman said.
But she says that still shouldn’t make this conversation part of the heartbreaking national gun debate.
“Both things can be true,” she said.
“Texas has failed to provide adequate mental health support. And mental illness in this scenario is also a red herring that only becomes a topic of discussion when these tragedies unfold, in an attempt to distract us. of the emphasis on common sense gun legislation.”