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January 29, 2014 at 8:29 AM

What was missing from the State of the Union

As former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords urged the Legislature in Olympia to expand background checks for gun purchases, President Obama was polishing up a State of the Union speech that urged Congress “to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters and our shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook.”

Former Rep. Gabby Giffords in Olympia (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Former Rep. Gabby Giffords in Olympia (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Both are futile gestures.

No tragedy seems large enough to budge Second Amendment absolutists, in Olympia or Washington D.C.

But both missed a prime-time opportunity to urge legislation at the root of many acts of gun violence – untreated mental illness. Obama didn’t mention mental health a single time in the official transcript. The state and national mental health systems have been systemically starved, so a focus on prevention could have a massive cost-benefit pay off. Unlike gun control, mental health reform has public support in a recent Gallup poll and bipartisan support, in Olympia and Washington D.C.

In Congress, a bill introduced in December by Rep. Tim Murphy, a psychiatrist, flows from his year-long investigation into the nation’s mental health system. Among its smart reforms is an end to the federal funding bias against inpatient psychiatric care, the so-called Institutions for Mental Disease (IMD) exclusion. Ending that bias – which bans Medicaid funding for community psychiatric wards larger than 16 beds – is a priority in King County, where a shortage of beds has led to an epidemic of patients boarded in emergency rooms. The Seattle Times has editorialized on the issue again and again.

Murphy’s bill would also require Washington state to make a change that Doug and Nancy Reuter believe would have saved their son from being shot by Seattle police last year. As Seattle Times reporter Brian Rosenthal wrote, Joel Reuter qualified for involuntary psychiatric treatment under an Arizona law which allowed his parents to petition for commitment. In Washington, local authorities hold the keys to commitment.

The gun control debate is going to rage hot this year in Washington, with two initiatives headed for the November ballot. Both sides will invoke mental illness as an underlying problem, but when the TV camera lights are on, consider why it is guns, and not better mental health care, that is the focus.

mental health gallup poll

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