Criminal Justice

Gun law would require therapists to report suspected danger; will it work?

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Critics say provisions of a New York gun control bill signed into law on Tuesday could discourage the mentally ill from seeking treatment.

The law would require therapists, medical personnel and social workers to tell government authorities if they believe a person is “is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others,” report the New York Times and the Associated Press. After a report, police would be allowed to seize the patient’s weapons.

Therapists have an ethical duty to protect potential victims when a patient appears dangerous, but there are several options available, according to Dr. Paul Appelbaum of Columbia University. The patient can be hospitalized, whether or not voluntarily; the intended victim can be warned; the patient’s medication can be changed; and the patient’s family can be asked to lock up guns, Appelbaum told AP. Only involuntary hospitalizations must be reported to authorities under the current ethics guidelines, the Times says.

Appelbaum said the New York law could discourage the mentally ill from seeking treatment or being truthful with their therapists. “The people who arguably most need to be in treatment and most need to feel free to talk about these disturbing impulses, may be the ones we make least likely to do so,” he told AP.

Another problem, according to the Times, is that determining which patients are likely to be violent “is more art than science.” Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist, told the newspaper that most mass murders are committed by “working-class men who’ve been jilted, fired, or otherwise humiliated—and who then undergo a crisis of rage and get out one of the 300 million guns in our country and do their thing.”

People with serious mental disorders do commit about 20 percent of rampage or serial killings, Stone said. Those serious disorders include psychopathic personalities, paranoid schizophrenia and severe depression. His conclusion is based on an analysis of a database of about 200 mass and serial killers.

Prior coverage: “Can Mental Illness Predict Violence? Researchers Identify 106 Risk Factors”

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