The sweeping gun-control legislation passed Tuesday in New York State has one provision that is unsettling in many ways to mental health professionals.
Along with limiting the number of rounds in a multi-round clip, broadening the ban on military-style assault weapons and requiring background checks for purchases of ammunition, the law also requires that doctors, nurses, counselors and therapists notify authorities if their patients threaten to harm themselves or others. That could lead to patients’ gun permits being revoked, or even having their guns confiscated.
Amnon Shoenfeld, the Director of King County Mental Health, Chemical Abuse and Dependence Services Division, sees it as a serious barrier to the kind of open communication necessary for a functioning therapeutic relationship.
“I think it’s really important that somebody who is seeing a mental health professional feels like confidentiality is being respected," said Shoenfeld.
He points out that most states have a “duty to warn” provision in their laws that gives doctors and counselors options if they believe a patient is dangerous to others. They can seek civil commitment, warn the person of people targeted, ask for court-ordered treatment, or even warn law enforcement if they think it’s necessary.
But having those options is very different from being required to tell police about what some patients are thinking and saying. Shoenfeld believes it could keep those who need help the most from seeking that help.
“If they feel like ‘If I say something wrong’ police are going come to their door they might be a lot less likely to talk about things," he said.
Shoenfeld, who points out that most killings in this country (95 percent by his estimate) are carried out by people who are not considered mentally ill, would like to see a greater emphasis on providing more access to mental health services. He also worries laws like this will further stigmatize the mentally ill in this country.
The American Psychiatric Association says its best estimate is that 96 percent of violent crimes committed in this country are committed by people who do not have mental disorders