From 2009 until 2013, states have cut more than $4.35 billion from mental health funding for treatment and related services for those most in need in America. Yes, you read that right — $4.35 billion. In tough times, states always turn to cutting social services first.
The message states seem to be sending is, “Hey, we know you’re already poor, so if we cut services to you, well, how much worse could your life be?”
So it comes as a relief — well, a little relief — that the White House announced the rejiggering of some budgets to free up $100 million in funding of mental health services to states.
Is this enough of a response — or even the right response — to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre?
I would argue, “no, not really.” It’s a good start, don’t get me wrong, and the $50 million that Vice President Biden announced to hire more mental health professionals in community mental health centers across the United States will be appreciated. (The other $50 million is targeting rural services, so far fewer Americans will be affected by that influx of funding.)
But once you divide that amount by the approximately 750 community mental health centers in the country, it comes out to just $67,000 per center. That’s one additional mental health professional per center (if that professional were a psychologist or such; maybe 2 if they were master’s level or less).1
It’s a good start.
But it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $4.35 billion taken out of the mental health treatment economy since 2009 (2013 saw some minor reversal, with states starting to again fund their programs with small increases).
It also has little to do with Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. The state report released last month that the only diagnosis he had ever received was for a mild form of autism (what used to be called Asperger Syndrome):
In 2005 he was given a diagnosis of Asperger’s, a syndrome on the autism spectrum, and was described to investigators as “presenting with significant social impairments and extreme anxiety”. But he declined to take any medication for his condition and would not engage in therapy.
That’s it. There’s no medication that’s been approved to treat Asperger Syndrome; the only treatment is psychotherapy. And at 13, he declined to participate in therapy.
How would more therapists or psychiatrists have changed this? Which the report acknowledges:
It is important to note that it is unknown what contribution, if any, the shooter’s mental health issues made to his attack … Those mental health professionals who saw him did not see anything that would have predicted his future behavior.
Contrary to those who suggest better/more mental health care is what we need to stop school shootings, this incident clearly shows that a mental health intervention is no cure-all. Mental health professionals also don’t usually have much training in magical prediction abilities for future violence.
Furthermore, there’s little evidence that demonstrates someone with Asperger Syndrome is more likely to commit a mass shooting than someone without it.
So the thread between a school shooting and more mental health services is a thin one. Even more so when you consider Lanza was 20 years old when he committed this shooting — long out of the reach of school counselors or any school-based mental health system.
The obvious solution to the problem of school shootings — making access to firearms more difficult for young adults and teens — hasn’t been seriously addressed by any lawmaker. That dumb parents make firearms accessible to their teens or children so that they can be misused in this manner is the real tragedy.
So while I applaud the announcement of the $100 million in federal funding being redirected for further mental health treatment in America, I don’t believe it will have much impact in either stopping future school shootings. Or in doing much to reverse the billions lost from the past few years of state cuts to mental health programs.
For further information
Special thanks to Ron Honberg, NAMI’s Policy Director, for talking to me yesterday about the finances of public mental health treatment in the U.S.
- Of course some centers will get more, some less, and some not at all, depending upon their size and the population they serve. [↩]