Details about Friday’s horrific shooting spree at a Connecticut elementary school are still emerging, and it remains unknown whether the suspected shooter suffered from underlying mental health issues. But the fact remains: in America, it’s currently easier for a poor person to get a gun than it is for them to get treatment for mental health issues.
Most murders committed in the United States involve a firearm — particularly handguns. A quick search shows that a typical handgun can be purchased for anywhere between $250 and $500. A .223-caliber semi-automatic rifle — which some reports indicate was the type of firearm used in today’s attack — costs between $700 and $2000. And contrary to the gun lobby’s most ardent hysteria about Barack Obama, gun ownership has actually been rising over the past four years, as has the use of guns in violent crimes.
By comparison, access to mental health services remains spotty, its funding and beneficiary requirements subject to the whims of governments attempting to balance their bloated budgets. People often do not know when they are entitled to preventative care services for mental health, and the people who do often forgo care due to the stigma associated with receiving such care.
And then there’s the cost of more extensive care. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), a mere 7.1 percent of all American adults receive mental health services. Most of these Americans’ care is covered by private insurance, with children, poorer, and more elderly Americans being covered through public insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. An additional ten percent are uninsured. But out-of-pocket costs for both inpatient and outpatient mental health services remain staggeringly high:
Obamacare will require health plans on statewide exchanges to cover mental health services as one of its “essential health benefit” categories. But states ultimately carry most of the discretion when it comes to defining what these services are and how much funding they get, and the coverage won’t help Americans in the absence of active efforts to identify and treat mental health disorders.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that Connecticut’s public mental health system currently provides coverage for less than one in five Connecticut residents with a serious mental health problem. The other four may not be able to afford to pay for those services on their own, particularly since mental health issues tend to disproportionately affect poor people.
Many states do require mental health evaluations and background checks before allowing their residents to purchase a gun. But doing an evaluation isn’t the same thing as actually treating people with ongoing mental health conditions.