OPED: Obama's action on guns hurts the mentally ill

Tribune News Service

On Jan. 4, President Barack Obama signed an executive order directing federal agencies to facilitate the release of confidential information about individuals with mental illnesses to the national gun background check database.

An emotional President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks about the youngest victims of the Sandy Hook shootings, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, where he spoke about steps his administration is taking to reduce gun violence. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Specifically, the Social Security Administration is to release the names and other information to the database if an individual receives benefits because of a mental-health issue and has a representative payee — that is, the individual has been determined to be unable to make competent decisions about his or her finances. And the Department of Health and Human Services has been asked to add language to current regulations to make it clearer that confidential diagnostic information can be released by states to the database, including information about those who have been hospitalized because of mental-health issues.

The benefits of this action do not outweigh the potential harms.

On the one hand, attempts to link mental illness to gun violence toward others for whatever political, economic or personal reasons are being increasingly discredited, so this will have no effect in this area. And while it is accurate that guns are among the most deadly methods used by the tens of thousands of Americans who commit suicide every year, the executive order is a vast overreach. Less restrictive approaches could be used, including removing guns from households where someone is suicidal and restricting access to guns for a certain period of time (e.g., three years) after the suicidal ideation has subsided.

On the other hand, the release of such private information could cause great harm to the millions of individuals who already experience prejudice and discrimination in employment, education, housing, social relationships, parenting and other areas. As a former federal employee whose personal information was part of the widely publicized online breach more than a year ago, I am particularly concerned about the security of such data.

The far-reaching and potentially harmful executive order should not be surprising in the context of our nation's long history of scapegoating people with mental illnesses, and codifying into laws and policies pervasive and intransigent stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. Limiting the civil rights of millions of Americans with mental illnesses, and doing so while putting their privacy rights at risk, is nothing new.

Nearly every state in our union has at least one law affecting the rights of individuals with mental illnesses. One of these is the right to vote, which is a foundation of our nation's democracy and seemingly defines what it means to be a full citizen. Federal law allows states to restrict the right to vote of those who are mentally incapacitated — defined in many different ways — and many states have done just that.

In terms of parenting, sterilization laws targeting those who were deemed "socially or mentally unfit" only ended in North Carolina, the last state that had such a law, in 1974, while such laws were on the books in 27 states in 1956. Currently, 37 states plus the District of Columbia include mental disability as grounds for termination of parental rights, often based on a diagnosis rather than evidence that the parent has ever displayed harmful behavior toward his or her child. Moreover, some states include parents with mental illness who have lost custody of their children, along with those who have abandoned, tortured, sexually abused or murdered their children, among those for whom efforts to reunify families will not be made as otherwise required by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.

Overall, 14 states in some way restrict the rights of people with mental illnesses to vote, serve on a jury, hold public office, or be a parent. Twenty states and the District of Columbia restrict rights in three of the four areas, and 10 states have restrictions in two areas. Five states — Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Vermont — restrict only the right to serve on a jury. Maine is the only state that restricts none of the four rights.

Finally, the right of people with mental illnesses to live in the community with the proper supports rather than in institutions was only recently upheld by the Supreme Court's Olmstead decision in 1999. Unfortunately, this right is under attack by some who seek to expand the use of asylums rather than pursue the multitude of community-based alternatives that have been developed at much lower costs.

Last January, President Obama said in his State of the Union speech that "Americans with mental illness," along with people of different races, ethnicities and classes, are deserving of dignity and worth. These convictions do not seem to be fully reflected in his policies, and the rights of millions of Americans with mental illnesses are further undermined, continuing our shameful history of prejudice and discrimination.

Mark Salzer is a professor and the chair of the department of rehabilitation sciences at Temple University.