Thursday, January 17, 2013

No applause from me

The APA came out with a press release today in response to President Obama's initiative to reduce gun violence and prevent future mass shootings.  Although the release "applauds" these proposals they seem to be short on the mental health side. From the APA release:

“ We are heartened that the Administration plans to finalize rules governing mental health parity under the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, the Affordable Care Act, and Medicaid. We strongly urge the Administration to close loopholes involving so-called ‘non-quantitative treatment limits’ and to ensure that health plans deliver a full scope of mental health services in order to comply with the law. Such action will best ensure that Americans get the full range of mental health services we believe they are intended to receive under federal law.”

So I guess the APA is applauding the initiative but encouraging the closing of loopholes. Call me a skeptic but 20 years of rationing mental health services and cutting them to the bone through managed care intermediaries and aggregating those managed care intermediaries into accountable care organizations does not bode well for the "full range of mental health services". The APA seems to have the naïve position that you can support managed care tactics and provide increased access to quality mental health services.

The next point in the APA release supports school screening and enhanced mental health services in schools for both violence prevention and to identify children at risk or in need of current mental health services. Those are certainly laudable goals but there is minimal evidence that screening is effective. There is also the problem of a lack of infrastructure.  Twenty years of rationing and restricting access to psychiatric services has resulted in long waiting lists or completely unavailable services. If you talk with a child psychiatrist, they will tell you that the current system is set up to offer medications in place of a more comprehensive approach to psychiatric treatment. At the social services level, residential treatment for children with severe problems is practically nonexistent. As a recent example, I was informed last week of a school social worker who could not get a child assessed for admission to an adolescent psychiatric unit and when that was not possible could not get an appointment to see a psychiatrist in a major metropolitan area. Screening for problems does not make any sense unless there is an infrastructure available to address those problems when they are found.

The final point in the APA release addresses the issue of physicians being able to discuss firearms at home with their patients. This has been a standard intervention for physicians ever since I have been practicing and it is always part of an assessment for suicide and homicide risk. There was a state initiative last year making it illegal for physicians to discuss firearms in the home with their patients. Part of the rationale for that law was that it could result in firearm owners being identified and placed them at theoretical risk for their firearms to be confiscated by the state.  I can say from experience that my discussions with patients about firearm safety and the discussions of other physicians that I have been aware of have been highly productive and have probably saved countless lives. The best example I can think of is talking with a primary care physician who asked me to take a look at a closet full of firearms that he convinced patients to turn into him over the years before he turned them into the police. Those patients were all depressed and suicidal and at high risk for impulsive acts. He would not have been able to make that intervention with a gag law in place preventing those discussions.

What about the President's original release?  It had 84 instances of the word "mental" usually as "mental illness" or "mental health".  As noted above it has received some accolades from the APA and other members of the mental health community. It elicited a strong and poorly thought out response from the NRA  who produced a YouTube video accusing the President of being elitist and a “hypocrite” because his daughters had armed security but he expected that everyone else’s kids would be protected by gun free zones.  The White House responded quickly:

“Most Americans agree that a president’s children should not be used as pawns in a political fight,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. “But to go so far as to make the safety of the president’s children the subject of an attack ad is repugnant and cowardly.”

The full text of the White House 22 page document is located at this link.  It is ambitious and covers a lot of ground in terms of the specific regulation of firearms, school safety, and increasing mental health services. The firearm regulation is most specific in that it closes background check loopholes, bans assault weapons, outlaws armor piercing bullets, and sets the maximum magazine size at 10 cartridges.  Part of this document is a "call to Congress" so it is not clear to me how much can be accomplished by the President's executive orders as opposed to Congressional action.  I am reminded of the NRA President last weekend stating that Congress would never pass a ban on assault weapons.  The Executive Order section of that part of the document lists the following activities:

1.  Addressing unnecessary legal barriers in health laws that prevent some states from making information available about those prohibited from having guns.
2.  Improving incentives for states to share information with the system.
3.  Ensuring federal agencies share relevant information with the system.
4.  Directing the Attorney General to work with other agencies to review our
laws to make sure they are effective at identifying the dangerous or untrustworthy individuals that should not have access to guns.

The school safety initiative seems more nebulous. There is funding for 1000 "school resource officers and school based mental health professionals" and the recommendation to train 5000 additional “social workers, counselors, and psychologists.”   Considering the fact that there are probably close to 100,000 schools, this seems like a drop in the bucket.   Ensuring that each school has an emergency plan for contingencies like mass shootings does not seem to be a novel idea.  Creating safer school climates and reducing bullying has already been initiated in many school districts. There seems to be a clear lack of public health measures in the school that would reduce the likelihood of violent events.

The mental health initiative is equally lacking. In addition to the deficiencies I pointed out initially in this document, there is discussion of providing mental health training to teachers and school staff. There is probably evidence that teachers and school staff may over identify mental illness rather than under identify it.  Is this really a problem and will this level of screening be effective?   The document describes the initiative here as "increasing access" to mental health services. Screening larger numbers of students and identifying them as having potential problems actually creates a bottleneck in the system rather than increasing access.  The suggested mental health interventions in this document fall short in terms of both primary and secondary prevention of mental illness and associated aggressive behavior. Depending on a managed care model that has an established track record of dismantling the mental health infrastructure and providing limited access to poor quality care will do nothing to accommodate increasing referrals other than assure that referred students will be rapidly medicated.

My final analysis of the President’s initiative today is that it may be a starting point.  He is certainly taking the issue seriously and deserves plenty of credit for that.  His support for reopening firearm safety research that was closed by the gun lobby is important. What will become of the firearm regulation is anyone's guess at this point. The school and mental health initiatives are largely symbolic and I would not expect them to have any impact. What is sorely needed is the American Psychiatric Association coming out with standards, quality guidelines, and medical education initiatives to improve the care of people with severe mental illnesses who also happen to be aggressive.  An important piece of those guidelines should include the public health measures that were previously mentioned on this blog and those measures should also play a much larger role in any Executive initiative.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

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