Treating mental illness in the age of extreme rhetoric

Robert Lewis Dear, 57, is accused in a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. Three people were killed and nine others inured. (El Paso County Sheriff's Office via AP)

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting suspect Robert Dear reportedly referenced “baby parts” after a shooting spree that left three victims dead, leading many to question his motives and mental health.

Robert Dear
Robert Dear (Courtesy: El Paso County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

Allegedly inspired by anti-abortion videos that depict post-abortion fetal tissue procedures, an unnamed police source claims Dear told police there would be “no more baby parts” after his attack.

Now Washington is sorting out the possible interaction of Dear’s mental state, divisive political rhetoric and yet another act of deadly violence.

Heated back-and-forths over fetal body parts have been rampant the past six months following undercover videos filmed and leaked by the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), in which Planned Parenthood doctors and administrators are seen discussing the process of obtaining, storing and transferring fetal tissue following abortions.

House Republicans have even formed a special committee to investigate Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and the millions of dollars it receives in federal reimbursements for non-abortion procedures.

Heated Rhetoric, Possible Dangers

According to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, the fine line between heated political rhetoric and dangerous incitement is at the heart of the matter, because some media “really focus on trying to get people to that point of boiling over – it’s just intense anger.”

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, told CNN that the First Amendment still reigns, but “if people are in some way emotionally unstable or psychologically unbalanced, that intensity of rhetoric sometimes seems to pull a trigger in their brain that they lose contact with what reality is.”

GOP 2016 frontrunner Donald Trump calls Dear a “maniac,” known to be “a mentally disturbed person.”

Meanwhile, Carly Fiorina, who’s been praised by many conservatives for opposing what she calls PPFA’s “harvesting” of fetal body parts, rejected any notion that her and others’ anti-abortion messages contributed to Dear’s actions. On Sunday, Fiorina called the suggestion “typical left-wing tactics.”

At ground zero in Colorado Springs, Mayor John Suthers favors proactive prevention to endless finger-pointing.

Suthers, a Republican, says as Colorado’s former attorney general, he led a committee which found that in “violent incidents like this in the past… we don’t do a very good job of identifying people with potential mental health issues.”

In Washington, D.C., lawmakers are trying to change that trend.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) says a major overhaul of mental health law is overdue – and on the way.

Murphy is an original cosponsor of the Mental Health Reform Act of 2015, along with Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.). The bill will make significant changes to the current mental health system in America. The sweeping legislation has gained key support in recent months from fellow senators and groups like the American Medical Association.


The Mental Health Reform Act is primarily focused on prevention. With millions of cases of mental illnesses going undiagnosed and untreated every year, problems compound as personal and societal risks escalate.

“We should be getting help to everyone who needs it. Not just people who may have some predilection toward violent acts. That’s a tiny segment of people who suffer from mental illness,” argues Sen. Murphy.

By all accounts, that numbers is massive.

According to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, “Nearly 1 in 5 adults over the age of 26 reported suffering from a mental illness. In that same time period, nearly 1 in 10 Americans between the age of 12 and 17 reported having at least one major depressive episode.”

Criminal Justice Reform

With mental health resources strained and drained coast to coast, many mentally ill people wind up behind bars.

The result is millions of Americans cycling in and out of jails, courtrooms and emergency rooms, racking up high costs and little clinical success.

Murphy’s legislation would attempt to change that through earlier, sustained interventions – especially in childhood, before difficulties metastasize.

Compulsory Treatment

A House bill sponsored by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.), the Helping Families in Mental Crisis Act, would implement a somewhat controversial component of the treatment options.

Through an assisted outpatient therapy (AOT) provision, judges would have the discretion of ordering patients to seek outpatient psychological treatment under court order.

Opponents deride AOT as heavy-handed big brother tactics, but supporters argue that treatment is often more successful in the outpatient setting and that many patients who would otherwise avoid a psychologist or refuse medications are more apt to comply when instructed by a judge.

2016 Looks Promising

On both sides of Capitol Hill, mental health reform supporters largely agree on the main points. Their measures would also create a new high-level position in the Department of Health and Human Services to solely oversee matters of mental health.

Most opponents of the existing bills are in the Democratic Party and complain that patient privacy would be unduly jeopardized, unless portions of the bills addressing HIPAA are strengthened.

Advocates of a top-down overhaul are hopeful that 2016 will be the year their efforts pay off, and they’re getting more company by the day.

Sen. Murphy says, “The reality is there are more people in Washington, more of my colleagues, who now suddenly care about mental illness and mental health reform because of these shootings.”

“We’ll take this moment and hopefully we’ll be able to pass something,” Murphy remarks optimistically.

The Mental Health Reform Act is set to be considered by the Senate in early 2016. Several competing bills are simultaneously moving through both chambers.

Follow Chance Seales on Twitter @ChanceSeales.

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