On Mental Health and Laws

by Michael Vicaro

Assistant Professor of Communication
Penn State Greater Allegheny

In the wake of mass shooting events in Newtown, Virginia Tech, Aurora and elsewhere, advocates on both sides of the gun rights/control debate have pushed for greater attention to mental healthcare as a way to reduce gun violence. This focus on mental health as a factor in violence prevention has led to a series of state and federal legal changes that seek to make it more difficult for people with diagnosed mental illnesses to gain access to firearms.

These laws and policy changes raise some interesting speech-communication questions—specifically insofar as they can potentially change the nature of the therapeutic conversation between patients and mental healthcare providers.  In some cases, such as in New York’s 2013 “SAFE ACT,” providers are required to file a report with state officials who will prohibit or revoke the gun licenses for anyone deemed by a therapist to be at risk for causing harm to oneself or others.  Critics fear that such laws compromise patient confidentiality and may keep people from seeking out mental healthcare treatment.  Others argue that the SAFE ACT and similar laws transform the role of the therapist who must now act as an agent of the state charged with a mandate to protect the broader public, at times in violation of the wishes and well being of their clients.

As communication theorists, we are especially interested in the way that such laws encourage citizens to see themselves and others as occupying narrow and limited positions as either a criminal, a victim, or a defender.  More broadly, we are interested in how new descriptive vocabularies (such as the turn to seeing gun violence as primarily a mental health problem) can lead to material changes in policy, law, and identity.