Where's the mental health discussion? Important issue unheard

Karen Cheung-Larivee

 Karen Cheung-Larivee

Pundits are saying this week's State of the Union is one of President Obama's greatest speeches, particularly because of his emotional call to action in the wake of Sandy Hook. And I would have agreed, except there was one important piece he forgot--mental health services.

Two months since the Newtown, Conn., massacre, Tuesday's address was an opportunity to reveal a commitment from the White House to improve mental health in the nation.

Sandy Hook, still fresh in the minds of Americans--and recalled with green ribbons during the speech--invoked painful reminders of other mass shootings: Columbine in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, Aurora in 2012.

Obama only mentioned mental health once in his hour-long speech, but in reference to veteran healthcare and not to recent shootings. In comparison, the president mentioned "guns" eight times in support of stricter gun control.

Although the proposed universal background checks, automatic weapon ban and limits on high-ammunition magazines that Obama mentioned are certainly important legislation measures worth considering to curb mass shootings, the State of the Union missed out on other significant efforts--expanding mental health programs, raising the standards of mental health facilities, as well as barring discriminatory insurance restrictions against those who seek treatment or even eliminating gun gag rules that limit physician conversations with patients, as the American College of Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics and American Academy of Family Physicians have supported.

Both Democrat and Republican governors have stressed prevention, Stateline reported. Delaware pushed for increasing the number of mental health workers at schools. Missouri asked for $10 million to expand mental health services including police and family education, and Idaho pushed for a new mental health hospital for state prisoners.

The president's focus--the heart of his speech--on gun control failed to consider the other factors of mass shootings. The National Science Foundation report released yesterday found mental health and access to guns (along with exposure to violent media) contributes to mass shootings.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who requested the report, said, "While I recognize the potential constitutional issues involved in tackling media violence, mental health parity and gun control, I am disappointed that mental health issues and media violence were left out of the president's address," The Hill's HealthWatch reported. "How can he, in good conscience, call for that, but not acknowledge the fact that each one of the shooters in those events was mentally disturbed?" Wolf said about Obama's proposed gun control.

Even in my own reporting, I've had to use the line "before turning the gun on himself" more times than I'd like to have.

Hospitals and healthcare staff are not immune from violence involving armed patients with mental health issues. Providers are in a unique position. They are on the frontlines of prevention, yet the last stop in the aftermath of a shooting to treat the victims. And they can take action as clinicians, as policy advocates, as citizens.

I hope by the next State of the Union, the nation will be further along in improving mental health services.

This is my final column at FierceHealthcare. I'll be moving to a position at a Boston hospital marketing department. It's been a pleasure serving the readers, and I hope to continue to serve the healthcare community. Thank you! - Karen (@KCheungLarivee / @FierceHealth)