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Mental health professionals object to NYSAFE Act’s effects

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The recently passed New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement, or NYSAFE, Act has gun owners upset over its limits on guns and ammunition.

But a component of the law that is supposed to prevent severely mentally ill people from using guns to harm themselves or others has north country mental health care professionals fearing it could have the reverse effect.

Jefferson County Mental Health Association Executive Director Theodore R. “Tedd” Stiles Jr. blasted the law, saying it’s “very confusing” and could create widespread stigma about mental illness.

People with mental illness may not seek treatment, he said, for fear of loss of their weapons, therefore putting themselves or others in potentially more danger if their illness is not managed.

Mr. Stiles said part of problem about the law is people do not understand mental illness, which he described as chemical imbalances in the brain that have symptoms that display themselves through actions or behaviors. Drugs and therapy together help the mentally ill restore wellness, he said.

“People are often embarrassed to seek treatment for something they can’t see,” Mr. Stiles said. “They’re so locked in; the brain is telling them nothing is wrong. With mental illness, you don’t realize there’s another way to live.”

Jefferson County Community Services Director Roger J. Ambrose said the “vast majority of people don’t understand the law.”

“We’re also trying to decide what does this mean to us,” he said.

People with mental illness, Mr. Ambrose said, already face losing housing, relationships, children and jobs. And in some cases, people who commit horrific crimes do not seek treatment for their issues, he said.

He said if you applied the NYSAFE Act nationally, the only mass shooting in the last few years that likely could have been prevented was the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting, as many media outlets reported the shooter sought treatment from mental health professionals.

The mental health portion of the NYSAFE Act now requires physicians, psychologists, registered nurses and licensed clinical social workers “in exercise of their reasonable professional judgment, to make a report for whom they are providing mental health treatment is ‘likely to engage in conduct that will cause serious harm to self or others,’” according to a guidance document provided by the state Office of Mental Health.

The reporting system begins with that initial alarm, and the provider is required to make a report to the state Office of Mental Health. From there, the state office will alert local counties’ Community Services directors. Upon review of the report, Community Services offices may forward it — with only nonclinical information — to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

“They look to see if that person has a weapon, or license to carry a firearm,” Mr. Ambrose said. “Those are suspended and a law enforcement department — if they’re in possession of a weapon — they have to look at retrieving those weapons.”

That process may be appealed, he said.

Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns said the Sheriff’s Department, or state police, would retrieve any weapons outside of Watertown city limits. The Watertown Police Department would handle those issues in the city.

“It just went into effect last week,” Mr. Burns said of the reporting system. “We haven’t had any issues since it’s been in place.”

In the first week, the Sheriff’s Department has not had to retrieve any weapons.

If someone tries to purchase a weapon after his has been taken away, a federal firearms licensee will be alerted from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System whether that person is prohibited from receiving or possessing a firearm, according to the guidance document. The federal Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, which the system is under, also “prohibits the receipt or possession of firearms by an individual who has been adjudicated as having a mental disability or has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution.”

The NYSAFE Act does not mean more training is necessary to handle situations involving those with mental illnesses, Mr. Burns said, as deputies went through school and learned how to handle those situations.

If providers don’t report something, either because they deem it not to be of concern or because they fear for their own safety, and a shooting occurs, the courts may decide who is responsible for any crime committed, Mr. Ambrose said.

Most Mental Health Association members have “good therapeutic relationships,” Mr. Stiles said, so a lot of the NYSAFE Act hype may not even apply to them.

He said some common mental illness diagnoses include depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, disassociative identity disorder, schizophrenia and alcohol and substance abuse. Not all people with mental illness are “crazy,” he said, although that is what many people may assume.

“The fight is way uphill,” he said. “To get society to change their views is very difficult.”

The mentally ill are more apt to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator, he said.

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