In response to the latest mass shootings, Republicans have scrambled to point fingers in a variety of absurd directions, blaming everything from doors to video games, secularism to fatherlessness. There’s even been some talk about holding marijuana responsible.
The rationale behind the strategy is hardly a mystery: Prominent GOP voices hope to shift attention away from guns, so they concoct a list of increasingly outlandish and unserious distractions.
But reviewing the Republicans’ list of talking points, the focus on mental health doesn’t seem nearly as foolish as the party’s other claims. After all, a significant number of Americans struggle with mental health, and if GOP officials are serious about expanding access to treatment as a way of preventing possible violence, this doesn’t sound as ridiculous as, say, limiting school buildings to a single door.
This might even be a pleasant change of pace: Republicans haven't traditionally been especially interested in investing in expanded access to mental health services. If some tragedies prompt GOP policymakers to take a renewed interest in the issue, and the interest endures, that might very well be a positive development.
There are some relevant concerns, though.
First, some of those pushing the message are poor messengers. The day after the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, for example, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said that the gunman had a “mental health challenge” and the state needed to “do a better job with mental health.” What the Republican neglected to mention was that, just one month earlier, Abbott slashed $211 million from the department that oversees mental health programs in Texas.
In fact, the 2021 State of Mental Health in America report ranked states in terms of overall access to mental health care. Texas ranked last — a problem the GOP governor has shown little interest in addressing over the course of his eight years in office.
Second, the underlying point is itself flawed. NBC News reported:
In the wake of yet another mass shooting, some Texas politicians have called for increased mental health services to help prevent the next tragedy. But experts working in the field warn that there is no fully effective solution to stop these shootings before they happen, with some saying that blaming mental health is a deflection from the fact that gun control is a necessary part of prevention.
For many, there’s a temptation to assume that anyone who’d pick up an AR-15 and shoot up a school — or a grocery store, or a house of worship, or a movie theater, etc. — must be, in a word, “crazy.” Therefore, the thinking goes, addressing mental health would prevent mass shootings.
But the fact remains that those who suffer from mental illness are more likely to be a victim of violence than to commit acts of violence themselves. What’s more, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness.”
Indeed, there are people with mental illnesses in every country around the world. Most of those countries don’t have American-style mass shootings — not because of their focus on mental health, but because powerful weapons aren’t readily available.
Finally, even if we were willing to put all of these relevant details aside, The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell noted in her latest column that Medicaid is the single largest payer for mental health services in the United States.
And yet, Republicans in 12 states — including Texas — continue to reject Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act.
If Abbott’s rhetoric was sincere, and he and other GOP policymakers genuinely want to “do a better job with mental health,” great. I can think of a few obvious places to start.
The other possibility, of course, is that Republicans aren't being sincere about the issue, and their interest is temporary — lasting just long enough to get the party through some news cycles. If this is the case, GOP officials won't take any of the aforementioned details seriously, and there will be no meaningful changes to making mental health care more accessible.
So, what's it going to be?