Senator pushes Azar for details on gun research; Experts question Trump's proposal for more mental health facilities

Alex Azar testifying
Alex Azar took over as head of the HHS at the end of January. (House Energy and Commerce Committee)

HHS Secretary Alex Azar said last week he'd be open to allowing the CDC to back more research on gun violence, and one Democratic senator is pushing for a timeline to make that happen.

Azar, who took over as head of the Department of Health and Human Services at the end of January, talked about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's ability to conduct research into guns at a hearing on the administration's 2019 budget proposal.  

cdc
CDC.gov

Azar said that the congressional budget rider that hinders the CDC's ability to study gun violence doesn't actually apply to conducting research itself; it only applies to advocacy on the issue. Democrats have long called for the CDC to be allowed to study gun violence in the U.S., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., wrote in a letter (PDF) to Azar asking for more details on a timeline so Congress can better support the research. 

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"As a consequence of the rider, policymakers, healthcare practitioners, researchers and others have lacked comprehensive, scientific information about the causes and characteristics of gun violence or the best strategies to prevent it," Markey wrote. 

Talk of research into gun violence has been just one part of the national conversation that has erupted in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, which left 17 people dead.

Amid the debate about gun laws, others have called for expansions of mental health services, and President Donald Trump himself suggested this week that opening more mental hospitals could prevent future shootings. 

Experts disagree, however, and say this solution is not likely to solve the problem, according to an article from The New York Times.

RELATED: AMA labels gun violence a public health crisis 

Creating more mental healthcare facilities would be a boon to mental healthcare overall, but in most cases would have done nothing to prevent some of the most headline-grabbing shootings, said Michael Stone, M.D., a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University who has conducted research into mass murderers. 

"Most of these shooters are angry, antisocial individuals you cannot spot in advance, and even if you could, you don't have the right to institutionalize them," Stone said. 

For example, the shooters in the 1999 Columbine High School shooting exhibited signs of depression and psychopathy, research suggests, but neither would have been candidates for a longterm psychiatric hospitalization with those symptoms, according to the article. 

RELATED: Doctors tell Trump to stop blaming mental health for gun violence 

If lawmakers want to target improvements to mental healthcare as a result of the Parkland shooting, behavioral health experts have some suggestions for strategies that could prevent future violence, according to an article from Health News Florida. 

Alisa LaPolt, director of the Florida chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told the publication that screening students for signs of mental illness could get them help sooner. And investing in public awareness campaigns can help people spot the symptoms of mental health issues, she said. 

"The sooner you intervene with a person going through a psychotic episode, the more likely they are to get into recovery and have a relatively normal and productive life following the event," she said.

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