Trump's Recent Mental Health Pledge Should Have Us All Worried

Nearly every single time there is a mass shooting in the United States (an estimated 34 have already happened in 2018, according to the Gun Violence Archive), American politicians perform a mind-numbing script of condemnations, calls-to-action and rhetorical squabbles for and against gun control legislation. One of those points, from the pro-gun school of thought, blames mental health issues for mass shootings. The same contention emerged after the Parkland, Florida shooting when Donald Trump’s administration said it was “actively” considering the expansion of mental health care initiatives to curb similar violence. But Trump’s mental health care pledge against gun violence is riddled with hypocrisy.

On Monday, the president said he was looking at Medicaid funds to do the difficult job of addressing mental health needs in the country—yet his 2018 budget slashes funding to Medicaid. Our mental health treatment system is already poorly funded and systematically neglected, to say the least. According to the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission, Medicaid is the main (and struggling) provider of behavioral health programs, especially for poor people. With Trump’s consistent attacks on Medicaid, it’s hard to believe the president when he says he wants to address the “difficult” issue of mental health.

In his first year in office, Trump has already taken harmful measures that have made it easier for people with mental illnesses and criminal records to obtain guns. In February 2017, the president signed a bill rolling back a critical regulation stipulated under Barack Obama's presidency that restricted gun access for people with mental health issues. Not only that, Trump also lowered the bar for “fugitives" seeking access to firearms and cleared thousands of names from the federal background check database. Plus, Trump proposed the idea to deprive the National Criminal Records History Improvement Program of funding worth millions of dollars, which would help with background checks.

If Trump is so concerned about the well-being of people with mental health problems, the question has to be asked: Why did his federal budget slash an estimated 26 percent of federal funds to behavioral programs? The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities studied Trump’s 2018 budget and wrote that it “would cut another five of the grants, including a 40 percent reduction in core funding for job training and a 26 percent cut for community mental health services.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also pointed to the budgetary cuts inevitably harming social services that help at least 6 million poor Americans with mental illnesses integrate into society. Trump's budget eliminates critical block grants that help poor Americans with mental health issues find better social care, housing and job opportunities.

Trump's call for increased mental health programs, however insincere, almost sounds like a noble pursuit until one recalls that his hyper-focus on mental health is neither new nor well-intended; it’s merely a rehashed conservative position that says people kill others because they are mentally ill, not because lax laws offer convenient access to semiautomatic firearms. While speaking in front of governors about potential funding, Trump also suggested the country could return to the days when mentally unfit patients were thrown into clinics. (Think of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.") “In the old days, you would put him into a mental institution,” Trump said, presumably speaking of the Parkland shooter. "We're going to have to start talking about mental institutions... we have nothing between a prison and leaving him at his house, which we can't do anymore."

In a country where mental health problems are stigmatized and people with mental health issues are regularly discriminated against, Trump’s comments on the subject are not only duplicitous but dangerous. The American Psychological Association has warned against blaming mental health for mass shootings. If Trump wants to take advantage of the conservative position that scapegoats the mentally ill and ignores the fact that access to guns is the real issue, his budget should reflect that concern through robust Medicaid funding, better social programs that help patients with mental health problems, and more wholesome community initiatives that don’t confine troubled individuals to the margins of society. Otherwise it’s simply hypocrisy.

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