Tangipahoa panel: Mental health, gun violence are complex issues

Mental health and gun violence are complex issues that no single group or piece of legislation can solve, a panel of Tangipahoa Parish community leaders and legislators has agreed.

The community forum where the issues were examined, held Monday night at First Presbyterian Church in Hammond, was an outgrowth of the church congregation’s discussions following the tragic December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., said the Rev. Barry Chance, pastor.

Many of the bills filed for the 2013 session of the Louisiana Legislature in response to that tragedy are well intentioned but perhaps overly simplistic, knee-jerk reactions, said state Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, one of four panelists.

“Some people want to focus only on mental health services. Some, only on bans. Some, only on background checks,” Broadwater said. “All of these should be part of the conversation, but no one thing is the solution.”

“To be fair, I’m not sure there is any legislative solution to a problem this complex,” he said.

The greatest possible impact the Legislature could have would be in reversing the tide of cuts to mental health services, Broadwater said.

The renewed focus on mental health following the Newtown tragedy is not a bad thing, but implying that the bulk of the responsibility for gun violence rests with mental illness is scapegoating, said panelist Chris Miaoulis, founder of Rosenblum Mental Health Center in Hammond and former board member of the Florida Parishes Human Services Authority.

“While certainly tragic, many more of these episodes are due to poor impulse control and anger management,” Miaoulis said.

The cuts to mental health services have been so severe, however, that the system’s ability to treat those with acute psychiatric illness is in very bad shape, he said. And there are no services for prevention.

“In terms of governmental funding for mental health services, the growing trend is that the funding comes from three sources: Medicare, Medicaid and private health insurance,” Miaoulis said. “But if you look at those models, you see that they only provide services for identifiable covered illnesses.”

Louisiana has no coordinated system of care for mental health services, in large part because of a lack of funding, said state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite.

Suggestions of increasing mandatory reporting requirements make sense, but the state already cannot deal with the number of people seeking help from the system now, he said.

“If we could ensure that everyone could be screened, then adequately treated or referred to services or a determination made that they don’t pose a threat, that would be one thing. But if not, then we’re not really doing much on the mental health front,” he said.

Where the system cannot adequately provide, churches and families have a role to play in filling the gaps, said the Rev. Tamarlon Carter, pastor of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church of Hammond.

“Churches must go beyond their pews to access the services of those professionals within their congregations who can fill the network and provide support as part of a local ministry, rather than just sending people to these governmental entities,” Carter said.

The underlying issue is an inherent lack of value for someone else’s life, evidenced not just in gun violence but also in bullying, domestic violence and even politicians’ use of character assassination against their rivals, Broadwater said.

“The church has a primary role to play in instilling morals and a value for human life,” Broadwater said, “but it will take all of us teaching and demonstrating those values to make progress.”