America is failing to treat its mentally ill, while making it possible for them to buy guns

Image: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke
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On Feb. 2, Congress voted to overturn regulations designed to keep people who suffer from severe mental illness from buying firearms in the US.

The regulations, put in place by the Barack Obama administration, had required the Social Security Administration to notify the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) of any disability insurance recipients found mentally incapable of handling their finances. The regulation was introduced in response to the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, where the shooter was found to have a history of mental illness. Inclusion in the NICS disqualifies a person from legally buying guns.

According to NPR, about 75,000 people are affected by the regulation.

The rule was rolled back using the Congressional Review Act, which Republicans in the House of Representatives are using to dismantle regulations instituted in the final days of the Obama administration. The measure will now to go the Senate, where it needs a simple majority to pass. Since Republicans hold 52 senate seats, that seems likely.

While mental health conditions plague one in five adults in the US (over 40 million people) 56% of those suffering do not receive treatment. There is only one mental health professional for every 1,000 people in the states; that number includes psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counselors, and psychiatric nurses.

There’s also a serious lack of psychiatric facilities. According to a 2016 report published by the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center, the number of state psychiatric beds has fallen from over 550,000 in 1955 to fewer than 38,000 in 2016.

As a result, many mentally ill end up homeless or in prison. The Treatment Advocacy Center found that 355,000 inmates in the US prison system suffered from mental illness in 2012, and a 2016 federal government report states that over 100,000 homeless Americans suffer from mental illness.

“When there are no beds for them, people who can’t be treated elsewhere instead cycle through other institutions or live on the streets,” write the authors of the Treatment Advocacy Center report. “They crowd into emergency rooms and languish behind bars, waiting for beds to open. Some become violent or, more often, the victims of violence.”