In the wake of the mass shootings at a Connecticut elementary school in December, the American public began engaging in a national conversation about improving the U.S.’s mental health care system to prevent future tragedies. While improving Americans’ access to mental health services is important, some pro-gun advocates like the NRA have used America’s floundering health care system as a convenient scapegoat for violent crimes, despite the fact that people with mental health problems are not statistically inclined towards violence.
It’s true that poor Americans — who are disproportionately affected by mental disorders — shouldn’t struggle to access the mental health services they need, but the existing barriers to that type of health care is just one flaw in a mental health system that may have even bigger problems. New research published in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry suggests that mental health treatments may not be effective until the U.S. reforms the way they are administered.
According to the study, even though 55 percent of suicidal teenagers had actually received some form of treatment for their depression, that alone was not enough to prevent them from attempting suicide in the absence of comprehensive medical procedures that take disparate mental health issues into account:
Previous studies have had similar findings, based on smaller, regional samples. But the new study is the first to suggest, in a large nationwide sample, that access to treatment does not make a big difference.
The study suggests that effective treatment for severely suicidal teenagers must address not just mood disorders, but also behavior problems that can lead to impulsive acts, experts said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,386 people between the ages of 13 and 18 committed suicide in 2010, the latest year for which numbers are available.
“I think one of the take-aways here is that treatment for depression may be necessary but not sufficient to prevent kids from attempting suicide,” said Dr. David Brent, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the study. “We simply do not have empirically validated treatments for recurrent suicidal behavior.”
The lack of holistic treatment to address all areas of mental health — rather than simply focusing on one part of the larger issue — isn’t unique to depression and suicidal teens. Americans with eating disorders often find themselves with spotty benefits and lack comprehensive care due to the complex, wide-ranging physical and mental manifestations of their sickness. Any effort to truly reform America’s mental health system must begin with a basic understanding of the various ways that a patient’s disorder might manifest itself, and how it relates to other aspects of the patient’s medical history.