Community-based behavioral health providers and advocates used last Wednesday’s Legislative Joint Budget Hearing on Mental Hygiene as a forum to raise concerns about – and peacefully protest – reporting requirements in New York’s new Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act (SAFE Act) which they believe will stigmatize mental illness and may serve as a barrier to treatment for those who need it.
Throughout the hearing, more than 50 self-advocates wearing T-shirts saying “You Are Talking About Me: Stop Psychiatric Profiling” silently stood in protest each time the SAFE Act or concerns about stigmatization were raised.
In addition to banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines and requiring background checks for all sales and purchases, the SAFE Act requires any therapist who believes that a mental health patient has made a threat of harming others to report the threat to a mental health director, who would then have to report the threat to the state Department of Criminal Justice Services.
“We are concerned that the requirement that mental health professionals report to local officials when a person is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others not only stigmatizes people with mental illness and might deter them from seeking treatment, but is in violation of federal HIPPA law and exposes both practitioners and providers to liability risks,” said Jason Lippman, The Coalition of Behavioral Health Agencies’ Senior Associate for Policy and Advocacy. “It is currently the case that HIPPA law now allows practitioners to report clients in the presence of an imminent threat. We are looking forward to working with the Governor, and members of the Legislature to remove this troubling provision, while retaining the freedom to report that HIPPA allows.”
Glenn Liebman, the Mental Health Association in New York State’s Chief Executive Officer, similarly expressed concern about how the NY SAFE Act would affect clients of community-based mental health services. “Mental health and gun laws are two separate issues,” he said. “People with mental illnesses are twelve times more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. We must pivot away from this discrete discussion to a productive discussion on how to provide mental health first aid.”
The SAFE Act aims to reduce gun related violence but, in requiring mental health clinicians to report clients who disclose impulses to harm themselves or others for potential inclusion in a DCJS registry, cancelation of their gun licenses and removal of their guns, advocates argue it will discourage people from fully disclosing in what should be trusting, therapeutic relationships.
“The stark truth is that the public doesn’t need protection from people diagnosed with mental illnesses; it is we who need protection from these kinds of outrageous mischaracterizations that assail our dignity, our rights and privacy protections,” expressed Harvey Rosenthal, NY Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services’ Executive Director. “It’s important to view New York’s SAFE Act in the context of experts’ opinions that ‘the biggest risk for gun violence is possession of a gun….and there's no evidence that the mentally ill possess guns or commit gun violence at any greater rate than the normal population.’”
“Instead,” he continued, “we urge state legislators to redouble their support for the Governor’s Medicaid Redesign and healthcare reform measures, which will appropriately turn our systems on their head, requiring active and persistent outreach and engagement, consistent follow up and support, greatly expanded prevention, crisis and peer supports and housing and employment, and will move us to a payment system that only rewards measurably improved client outcomes.”
Since the hearing, the NYS Office of Mental Health (OMH) has published a series of frequently asked questions about the new SAFE Act reporting requirements on its website and has scheduled a webinar on the issue which will be broadcast on March 12th and available online after that date.