PARKERSBURG - The identity of those involuntarily committed to the mental health system is automatically provided to a federal database used for background checks when weapons are purchased from a registered dealer and when an application for a concealed weapons permit is filed.
While the deadly shootings in Newtown, Conn., have revived the debate over proliferation of guns in this country, they have also spurred conversation over access to mental health services.
Westbrook Health Services officials say more funding for mental health services is needed to provide additional staffing and programs, involuntary commitment procedures in West Virginia need to be re-examined, and the taboo surrounding the topic of mental illness needs to be lifted.
Kimberly Dixon, Crisis Care coordinator, program director at Westbrook Health Services looks over statistics for involuntary mental health commitments during the past year. (Photo by Pamela Brust)
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans 18 and older, about one in four, suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. About 6 percent, or one in 17, suffer from a serious mental illness.
Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15-44, affecting 14.8 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population, in a year. Symptoms of dysthymic disorder (chronic, mild depression) must persist for at least two years in adults (one year in children) to meet criteria for the diagnosis.
More than 90 percent of people who kill themselves have a diagnosable mental disorder, most commonly a depressive disorder or a substance abuse disorder, according to the institute.
"Background checks have been required for firearms purchases dating back to to the Brady Act," said Kimberly Dixon, Crisis Care coordinator, program director at Westbrook Health Services.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was signed into law in 1993 and became effective February 1994. The act was named after James Brady, who was shot during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in March 1981.
The Brady Act added the National Instant Criminal Background Check System of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for Federal Firearms Licensees, a national database system that checks available records on persons who may be disqualified from owning firearms.
The section under disqualifications includes individuals who have been "adjudicated mentally defective or involuntarily committed to a mental institution or incompetent to handle their own affairs, including dispositions to criminal charges of found not guilty by reason of insanity or found incompetent to stand trial." Under this section, those individuals are denied when applying to purchase a firearm from a registered dealer required to perform a background check.
Every state has a civil commitment process and each system is different.
"In West Virginia, if you are committed, through the court system, as soon as the mental hygiene commissioners run the order, it's uploaded to the NICS registry," Dixon said. "If you are committed for addiction, that does not go into the NICS registry."
Those committed involuntarily are prohibited from possessing and receiving firearms and ammunition, in some cases, for the rest of their life; required to immediately surrender firearms owned or in their possession. Conviction in West Virginia of violating this provision can result in a $1,000 fine or up to one year in jail. Federal conviction is a felony and can result in fines and jail time up to 10 years.
Persons seeking voluntary treatment are not subject to these prohibitions.
"If you try to buy a gun from a registered dealer that does a background check, or apply for a concealed weapons permit, both of those go to the NICS registry and you would be denied," Dixon said. It just says no, it doesn't say why, because there are domestic violence restrictions and other reasons as well, she noted.
"What bothers me personally about that is, if it's the first time someone has been committed, we are taking away their civil rights, and it may be a youth. Let's face it we all go through traumatic times in our teens. I have had clients who can't get into the military later because they've been committed at some time, they can't work for a federal agency, or get a weapons clearance," she said.
The petition for involuntary commitment states if you are a danger to yourself or others you could be the subject of a petition. A petition can be filed by anyone over age 18. The individual is picked by the sheriff and the case is evaluated by a psychologist or social worker and a recommendation is made to the court, the mental hygiene commissioner or magistrate who hears it makes the final decision. In Wood County, there were 621 such petitions filed in 2012. Of that number, there may only be 300 or so actually sent to the hospital.
As part of a concealed weapons permit application, the applicant is asked whether they have "ever been adjudicated to be mentally incompetent" and whether they are "physically and mentally competent to carry a pistol/revolver."
"A lot of people think that providing the information regarding the mental capacity of an individual is a violation of their rights. But where do their rights stop, and where do ours start? I feel for them, but many of the recent shootings have involved individuals with problems in that area," said Wood County Sheriff Ken Merritt. The sheriffs oversees the concealed weapon carry permit process.
"We have a pretty good safety net here in Wood County, we have an excellent working relationship with area law enforcement. They bring in people from time to time or ask us to check on someone if they think there might be a mental health issue," Dixon said.
But with limited staff and programs, Dixon said the biggest issue for mental health officials comes down to available funding.
"The state hospital is built for 150, they usually have at least 175 plus people in all the private hospitals, there are overflows. People with mental illness don't vote," Dixon said, noting mental illness still has a stigma.
"It's OK to say my child has Autism, or to admit you are an alcoholic, but it's still not OK to say my child has a mental illness. These are brain diseases, but society as a whole isn't talking about that. Many people are afraid of those with mental illnesses, but frankly, most people are so tortured by their symptoms they couldn't get organized to do much of anything much less hurt someone," she noted. Dixon noted most of major mental illnesses don't show up until late adolescence.
What is the answer to get to those who need help and get them the help they need.
"A good place to start is to call a crisis line, where there are professionals available. Our crisis line is confidential. After every shooting that makes the news, we get calls from parents saying that could have been their young adult children," Dixon said. "They may have had nagging doubts, but they hadn't done anything, it takes that crisis to make them call."
"We also have a nationwide shortage of psychiatrists, people are not going into the field. President Obama is trying to address this with the student loan programs, but people aren't going into social work. My graduate tuition was the same, but they are making four times what I make," she said. "There are waiting lists to see a psychiatrist, maybe two months, and that's a vast improvement. Psychiatrists are also among the lowest paid medical professionals and the field is not as well-respected, because we don't recognize mental illness as a brain disease."