John Oliver asks why it took a mass shooting for politicians to care about mental health

Interesting timing.
Interesting timing.
Image: AP Photo/J Pat Carter
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In the days after a 26-year-old shot and killed nine people and injured several others at an Oregon community college, US politicians were divided between those who blamed the gun lobby and those who saw it as an opportunity to speak out about the country’s failing mental health system. President Barack Obama called the response, including his own remarks, a depressing political “routine.”

On Sunday, comedian John Oliver went a step further, arguing that the only time when politicians want to discuss mental health is in the aftermath of a mass shooting.

The British comedian showed clips of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee—three Republicans who are running for president—going on talk shows and talking about the need for mental healthcare reform. But, Oliver pointed out, Huckabee has little authority to lecture the public on this, when his home state of Arkansas received a failing grade on mental healthcare while he was governor. Oliver also debunked Trump and Carson’s argument that the prevalence of gun violence is related to mental illness: The vast majority of people with mental illness are non-violence, and less than 5% of mass shootings are committed by the mentally ill.

But he did himself call attention to the country’s mental health failings, and the ways in which the system can (but often, fails to) help those who suffer from it.

In fact, Oliver pointed, out, those who suffer from mental illness are much more likely to be targets of violence than perpetrators. But a disturbing number of those people don’t get proper therapy—there are 10 times more people behind bars than in mental health facilities. Even those who do go to treatment centers may not be getting the help they need, he said, calling attention to the disturbing practice of “Greyhound therapy,” which involves discharging patients early and sending them off with their bags and a one-way bus ticket to another municipality.

Oliver condemned the way the country has handled mental illness as: “nothing, not anything, very few things, not much, and prison.”

The programs that do work, such as robust community-based treatment and police forces trained in crisis intervention, are at risk of losing funding, he said—despite politicians who have recently professed an interest in fixing America’s mental health system.