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Guns and mental health care
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By susan Pinegar

Legislation introduced earlier this year in the U.S. Senate aims to help frontline professionals safely de-escalate troubled individuals in crisis situations. It would provide training for educators, first responders, clergy and veterans, to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness and help individuals get treatment before they harm themselves or others.

The Mental Health Care First Aid Act comes in direct response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary and is seen as a reaction to the rise in gun violence by people who are potentially mentally ill. Most politicians appear ready to talk about meaningful mental health reform and to address mental health as it relates to gun violence. It's about time.

Individuals with mental health issues are frequently thwarted by a culture and system that often fail to recognize and address mental health issues. A lack of funding for education and treatment has also contributed to the increasing number of people with undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues.

Traditionally, private insurance companies have provided limited coverage for mental health. While the federal government and states have made broader coverage available, mental health services are still seriously underfunded. The current sequestration is further reducing federal funding and services. Consequently, mental health issues are at an all-time high and are predicted to rise over the next 20 years.

For many people, the most common obstacle to not pursuing treatment is cost. Insurance premiums have increased along with deductibles and co-pays, forcing people to forgo care simply because they cannot afford it. While the Affordable Care Act should make mental health services available to more people, it doesn't solve the problem. Access to affordable mental health resources is critical.

An unwillingness to pursue treatment is another reason people do not receive care. Some individuals and families feel that they can solve the problem on their own, while others hope that the problem will just go away. People with a mental health issue wait an average of 10 years before seeking treatment. Learning to recognize these issues and understand the consequences will enable faster treatment.

It is not uncommon for people to have significant reservations about receiving mental health services. Whether due to misinformation or labeling, stigmas regarding mental health are pervasive. Culturally, people who seek these services frequently feel ashamed and fear they will be seen less favorably. The reality is that mental health services are about educating people, teaching coping strategies and stress-reduction techniques to help them deal more effectively with difficulties that arise in their lives.

The good news is that mental health is beginning to be viewed as an important part of overall health and wellness. This is an important step. However, education, funding and treatment rates must improve if we want to ensure that people receive needed services.

Utah is one of the most "firearms friendly" states in the nation. With easy access to guns, understanding the signs and symptoms of mental health issues is critical if we want to make our communities safer. Federal grant money would ensure the training of key professionals who could defuse a potentially violent situation.

Supporting the Mental Health First Aid Act would be a clear first step in safeguarding the citizens of Utah.

Susan Pinegar is a student in the University of Southern California masters program in social work. She lives in Murray.

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