WASHINGTON — A politically chastened Obama administration held a conference on mental health at the White House Monday, as officials retreated from the bold rhetoric and proposals they pledged would help prevent mass shootings such as the massacre at an Aurora movie theater last July.
Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius suggested the administration could not prod Congress or state governors to ensure that severely mentally ill individuals who refuse treatment take their medication.
“We can’t make them (the severely mentall ill) take their medication,” Sebelius said in an interview after the first panel discussion in the morning.
President Obama referred to several high profile shootings indirectly.
“(I)n some cases, when a condition goes untreated, it can lead to tragedy on a larger scale,” Obama said in a fourteen-minute address that did not include new proposals to prevent the mentally ill from obtaining firearms or encourage institutions to share information about individuals who might suffer from mental illness.
Nearly six months earlier, an emboldened Obama pledged that his administration would lead the charge to prevent mass shootings in the future.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change,” Obama said at an interfaith prayer service two days after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
His administration emphasized its support for a renewed ban on assault weapons, universal background checks, and additional federal funding for schools to hire and train school counselors to serve those who might suffer from mental illness.
The controversial gun-control measures died in the Senate in April.
While Congress has not voted on the administration’s spending proposal, the Senate passed a similar bill without the funding on April 18.
Obama and administration officials directed their remarks not at the small subset of the population that suffers from severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but rather at more common mental illnesses such as depression.
Obama noted that fewer than two in five Americans with mental illness receive treatment.
“Now think about it: We wouldn’t accept it if only 40 percent of Americans with cancers got treatment,” he said, a statement that elicited dark laughter from members of the audience in the East Room of the White House. The crowed included more than one hundred mental-health and local officials as well as 17 members of Congress.
In addition, Obama quoted from a study an epidemiologist at the Department of Veterans Affairs released earlier this year. “Today, we lose 22 veterans a day to suicide — 22,” he said.
Critics of the administration’s mental-illness proposal argue that not access to treatment but an absence of forced treatment is the largest problem with mental-health policy. They note in the case of the mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, Tucson, Arizona in 2011, and Aurora last July, mental-health officials at each school recognized the young man suffered from psychosis but were unable to demand he receive treatment.
E. Fuller Torrey, a noted psychiatrist and author, urged Congress to fund a block grant to states for assisted outpatient treatment, which require those who have a history of violence and not taking their medication to get treatment.
“If we don’t add this critical issue to our laws, we’re going to be back here in six months and a year from now,” Torrey said at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 5.
Obama administration officials defended their policies on mental health as appropriate for a larger, less demanding population.
“I think this is much broader,” Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute on Mental Health, told TCO. “We need a lot of help.”
In a brief two-minute interview, Sebelius noted that her department released a letter to health-care providers in January that a 1996 federal health law does not prevent them from revealing information about a mental-health patient to law enforcement, family members, or others when they believe the patient presents a “serious danger to himself or other people.”
Obama pointed to the creation of mentalthealth.gov, a new website in which the entertainer Cher, actress Glenn Close, and sports broadcaster told stories about family members who suffered from mental illness.
House Republicans have not proposed a legislative response for mental-illness reform. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) chairman of an Energy and Commerce subcommittee, indicated he will introduce a bill this year.