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Conn. Law May Discourage Mental Illness Sufferers From Help


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene, good morning.

After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut six months ago, many states looked for ways to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illnesses. Now, a new law in Connecticut can take gun licenses away from people who voluntarily check into mental health facilities. Some people fear this will discourage people from getting help.

Craig LeMoult from member station WSHU has more.

CRAIG LAMOULT, BYLINE: Dr. Sigurd Ackerman walks around the green 43-acre campus of Silver Hill Hospital, in a woodsy and wealthy neighborhood of New Canaan, Connecticut. He points to a feature you don't usually associate with a mental institution.

DR. SIGURD ACKERMAN: We have a very nice tennis court and it's actually used quite a bit in the summer time.

LAMOULT: Despite the bucolic setting, this is a busy psychiatric hospital.

ACKERMAN: We admit about 2800 patients a year. So, you know it's not a spa. It's a hospital.

LAMOULT: He says most of those patients came to the hospital voluntarily, for treatment for anything from an eating disorder to depression. Now, a new Connecticut law says institutions like Silver Hill will have to report those admissions to the state. Its part of the sweeping gun control bill Connecticut passed in the wake of the shooting six months ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

By federal law, people who are committed against their will are already reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check system. But this is the first time Connecticut hospitals are required to report voluntary admissions. The state will then cross reference those people with their list of gun licenses. If there's a match, the license would be revoked. And those patients would be barred from getting a gun license for six months after their admission.

ACKERMAN: The implication is that the public needs protection from people who are admitted voluntarily to a psychiatric hospital, which is totally fallacious and only exaggerates the stigma associated with mental illness.

LAMOULT: And Ackerman worries that, even for people who don't own guns, knowing they'd be put into a state database might be enough to discourage some people from voluntarily seeking help.

Michael Lawlor is Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy's criminal justice advisor. He says they shouldn't worry, because the database will be completely secure. And he points out the law doesn't focus on just anybody with mental illness - only people who have been admitted for treatment.

MICHAEL LAWLOR: In that case, we're talking about someone who clearly is posing some kind of danger to themselves or to others.

LAMOULT: Ron Hornberg, of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, says that's the bar for people committed against their will, not for voluntary admissions.

RON HORNBERG: There could be any number of reasons why somebody goes into a hospital that doesn't necessarily involve dangerousness.

LAMOULT: Hornberg says these kinds of laws cast too broad a net.

HORNBERG: It's been very frustrating to us that we've seen a number of legislatures - certainly not uniquely Connecticut - embrace these sorts of over-generalized approaches.

LAMOULT: According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, more than 80 state bills have been introduced since the Newtown shooting that crack down on gun ownership by people with mental illness. A similar bill passed the Florida legislature signed and now goes to the governor. But most of the newly proposed laws deal with those who are involuntarily committed.

Jeff Swanson, a psychiatry professor at Duke University, has been studying these kinds of laws. And he says even if they cut out any violence to others by mentally ill people, overall violence would go down just about four to five percent.

JEFF SWANSON: That's because, you know, there aren't that many people with serious mental illness and their risk is not that high. Now when we think about suicide, the risk associated with mental illness, estimates are much, much higher.

LAMOULT: Swanson says in men, 26 percent of suicides are attributable to mental illness. In women, it's slightly higher. But some mental health experts say the Connecticut law, revoking gun licenses for people who are voluntarily admitted, won't reduce the suicide rate. They say the people most at risk, the ones who have access to guns, now might not check themselves in to get help.

For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Connecticut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.