The Senate’s gun safety bill, which was reached through tense bipartisan talks last month, has been celebrated as the first federal legislation to combat rising gun violence in 30 years. But what often falls below the radar is the new law’s focus on improving mental health services.
News coverage has largely centered on the law’s provisions to enhance background checks for younger buyers, encourage states to implement their own “Red flag laws,” and close the “Boyfriend loophole.” Less attention has been paid to the mental health programs that most of the estimated $13 billion is earmarked for.
“It is kind of a gun safety bill wrapped in a mental health bill,” said Jeffrey SwansonDr., a Duke University School of Medicine psychiatry professor who studies the intersection of mental illness and gun violence.
The pairing of these initiatives in the legislation spearheaded by a small group of senators after the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, was a result of Republicans’ insistence that any gun reform effort must also address mental health, even as Democrats disavowed a connection between the two concerns.
“We don’t think you can solve America’s gun violence epidemic through the prism of mental health. But if we have agreement between Democrats and Republicans to spend billions of additional dollars on mental health treatment, especially for vulnerable communities, let’s take that opportunity,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a key negotiator, while laying out the bill’s frameworkat a June 13th press conferment.
While advocates for mental health are pleased Congress authorized funds to support their cause, they were also concerned that Congress would perpetuate the notion that people with mental illnesses are responsible for gun violence. research shows that’s not the case. Individuals with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression, are responsible for only 3% to 5% percent of violent acts. People with mental illnesses are more vulnerable to violence than those in the general population.
“It is with very mixed emotions when we think about lumping these together,” said Hannah WesolowskiChief advocacy officer at National Alliance on Mental Illness, “We need mental health investments, yet we know that mental health is not the direct cause of a person being violent.”
A central question about this heightened level of investment is whether it can make a difference in the nation’s struggle to combat gun violence. Here’s a look at key mental health aspects in the new law.
What’s in the Legislation
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the new law’s total cost$13 billion. The bulk of that money will go to increasing the funding for existing mental health and school safety programs. $1 billion is available over five years to support two programs that aim to increase the number mental health counselors in schools.
You can also get these allocations:
- For a total of $80 million in four years, Access to mental health care for childrenThe telehealth program allows pediatricians to offer mental health services over the internet. A further $60 million will be spent over the next four years to train primary care physicians to provide mental healthcare services to young patients.
- To increase community mental health services, $250 million will be spent over four years block grants to states to help fill in blanks in a state’s mental health system, such as creating care programs for adults and children with serious mental illnesses or emotional disturbances.
- Additional $240 million could be added over the course of four years. Project AWARE, which provides grants to mental and behavioral health organizations, community groups, and schools to raise students’ awareness of and connect them to mental health services in schools.
- $150 million in the new year 988 National Suicide Prevention LifelineThe launch of, which will take place in mid-July.
In addition, the new law provides funding of up to $8.6 trillion over 10 years for the establishment of certified community mental health clinics in all 50 states. The clinics are required to treat all individuals regardless of insurance, and they can be found in 10 states that were part of the pilot Medicaid program. Participation in the program would require states to apply. It would be implemented in 2024.
While Annual reports submitted for CongressWhile the pilot program’s behavioral health outcomes were not consistent across states, other data shows that the clinics have made significant savings and scored well on measures such as encouraging patients to use antidepressant medication or to get treatment for alcohol dependence. But, there are some limitations. 2021 Government Accountability OfficeThe report revealed that there was insufficient data about these clinics, making it difficult to assess their effectiveness in improving behavioral and mental health.
What are these Mental Health Programs? When will they start?
It’s hard to know how effective the new spending will be at improving mental health, said Marisa DominoBecause not all programs that receive additional funding have been evaluated for effectiveness, or are able, he is an economist and director of the Center for Health Information and Research, Arizona State University.
“There are lots of little opportunities in this bill, but it’s hard to tell as a whole” if it will be useful at improving mental health, said Domino.
Some funding will start this year, and continue for up to five years. Others spending streams may not be available until 2024. That’s typical since government funding must be planned years in advance. However, it raises questions about the speed at which mental health programs can grow.
However, advocates and researchers insist that more money will be needed to support mental health because programs are so underfunded in the U.S.
Will it end gun violence?
Swanson said that it all depends on how you define gun crime.
Over half of gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides, and it’s possible this legislation will help to reduce those deaths.
Red flag laws have been proven to decrease suicide rates. The funding provided by the new law can also be used to help states implement them. These types of laws, which are now in place in 19 states, the District of Columbia and other countries, allow relatives, police or doctors to petition the court to request that guns be temporarily removed from anyone they feel may be at danger of harming themselves or others for up to one year.
Swanson was an example of a researcher who led a project. Analysing the effects of a red flag policyWorked in Connecticut where his team estimated that every 10-20 guns was removed, one suicide prevented.
But experts acknowledge that the mental health spending may not do as much to stop the gun violence that’s manifested through mass shootings, such as in Uvalde, at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, in May, and during a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois.
“The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent,” said Swanson.
KHNKaiser Health News (Kaiser Health News), is a national newsroom that publishes in-depth journalism on health issues. KHN is one the three main operating programs. It includes Policy Analysis and Polling. KFF(Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization that provides information to the nation on health issues.