CAPITOL HILL— Last week's mass stabbing and shooting attack that left six people dead in Santa Barbara, California has reignited debate in the United States about gun regulations and whether to require people with serious mental illness to receive psychiatric care. Some members of the U.S. Congress are calling for laws to be changed to make it easier for families to have a loved one hospitalized when they are worried about that person's health or the safety of the community.
Republican Representative Tim Murphy is a child psychologist. Citing a long list of alleged perpetrators of mass killings: in Santa Barbara, California, Newtown, Connecticut, Tucson, Arizona and Aurora, Colorado, among others, Murphy said all of them appeared to have one thing in common.
"All had untreated or undertreated serious mental illness. All spiraled out of control within a system that lacked the basic mechanisms to help," said Murphy.
Congressman Murphy pointed out that violence by people with mental illness is very rare, and is most often self-inflicted. In fact, the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence, robberies and other crimes. Murphy is one of many experts who say the U.S. mental health care system is in crisis and needs a major overhaul. He has introduced legislation that would push states to permit seriously ill patients to be hospitalized against their will.
At a forum on Capitol Hill Thursday, Edward Kelley said his family has struggled for 15 years to help their now adult son deal with a serious mental illness and his rejection of treatment. Kelley said the mental health system is failing his son, who has often ended up wandering the streets homeless after short hospitalizations.
"But the laws and the standards of what gets you in that hospital are too high. So you go past that moment of safety, and now you are just clinging," said Kelley.
Another expert at the forum was DJ Jaffe, executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org. Jaffe said the U.S. also needs to change its priorities on mental health care spending.
"My one message is we have to stop ignoring the most seriously ill. We can't go on pretending that they don't exist," said Jaffe.
Jaffe said until the early 1960's, most mental health expenditures went to the seriously mentally ill in state psychiatric hospitals, but today, more federal dollars go to improving the mental health of all citizens, instead of focusing on the most seriously ill.
The debate is likely to continue in Congress. Democratic Representative Ron Barber has sponsored competing legislation that would focus on early identification of mental illness and treatment. Barber was among those injured in 2011 when a gunman opened fire on then-congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona. Barber and Giffords survived, but six others were killed.