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In the Wake of Another Mass Shooting, Let's Talk About America's Dangerously Gutted Mental Healthcare System

The Right’s program for public safety: Everyone should have a gun and few should get adequate mental healthcare.
 
 
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The scene has replayed itself over and over -- in Tucson, at Virginia Tech, at Columbine. On Friday in Connecticut, another unstable man has taken innocent lives in a burst of terrifying violence.

Inadequate gun control is only one half of the story. The other is the shameful job America does of treating the mentally ill. Today, 45 million American adults suffer from mental illness. Eleven million of those cases are considered serious. Most of these people are not dangerous, but if they can’t get treatment, the odds of potential violence increase.

Yet the mentally ill are finding it increasingly difficult to get help. Mental health funding has been plummeting for decades. Since 2009, states have cut billions for mental health from their budgets. As Daniel Lippman has reported in the Huffington Post:

Across the country, states facing severe financial shortfalls have cut at least $4.35 billion in public mental health spending from 2009 to 2012, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD). It's the largest reduction in funding since de-institutionalization in the 1960s and '70s. In fiscal year 2012 alone, 31 states that gave their numbers to the association reported cutting more than $840 million.

Thanks to the misguided austerity policies embraced by conservatives, more people are falling through the cracks. There are not enough psychiatric beds, treatment services or community support programs. Medication is expensive, and insurance companies routinely leave patients inadequately covered (the Affordable Care Act will hopefully address this problem by finally putting psychiatric illnesses on par with other health issues).

Mental healthcare workers have been laid off. Vulnerable people are neglected until their situation becomes acute – often after it’s too late. Many are incarcerated, often subjected to solitary confinement because prison officials don’t know what to do with them. Others are homeless – as many as 45 percent of the people living on the streets suffer from mental illness.

This situation is no accident, and it is not inevitable. Economics 101 tells you that when you have a massive economic crisis, the government must step in to fill the gap until the economy can recover. The United States government, unlike, say, a state or a country like Greece, does not have to balance its budget. The U.S. has its own currency and is well-equipped to provide stimulus money to states to make up for budget shortfalls. What gets in the way of meaninful action is political obstruction, not economics. Federal stimulus dollars and other grants have made up for some of the cuts to mental healthcare, but thanks to constant efforts to block adequate stimulus measures, not enough. And if conservatives have their way, budget cuts to programs like Medicaid will continue to ensure that high-risk people can’t get help.

With proper treatment, people with severe mental illness are no more likely to commit crimes than others. But without treatment, the potential for tragedy is painfully evident.

The Right’s program for public safety appears to be that everyone should have a gun and few should get adequate healthcare. That’s a recipe for death and destruction. Killing sprees are on the rise. How many more people will have to die before mental healthcare becomes a national priority?

Lynn Parramore is contributing editor at AlterNet. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.