Op-ed: Mass shootings show need for medical illness care

Nikolas Cruz, who was struggling with mental illness, killed 17 people at a school in Florida. Would an intervention have helped?

By Rep. Thomas Murt

Another horrific shooting at a high school, this time in Parkland, Florida.

As an educator, a coach and a parent, I, like all of us, am horrified that these mass shootings are being committed, particularly against our children.

It begs the question: When do we say, “Enough?”

As a legislator, I feel compelled to either take action or explain why I did not.

Granted, the circumstances that lead to such tragedies are often paradoxically amorphous and unique. Deciding what action to take can be difficult. And, no legislative proposal exists that will prevent all future acts of gun violence.

However, there are steps that can be taken.

The first is to recognize that the driving issue is not solely gun violence nor mental health. At a minimum, it’s both.

Although research shows that the mentally ill are clearly more likely to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of acts of violence, there is a virtual constant in many of the cases that have captured the national spotlight: the inability of mental health professionals and loving families to intervene earlier and to get treatment for a loved one struggling with a mental illness before they become a danger to themselves or to others.

Pennsylvania’s involuntary commitment process is no different. Although it seeks to protect a person’s civil rights, it also impedes a person with a mental illness from receiving badly needed medical care.

To be remanded for mental health evaluation and treatment in the commonwealth, a person must be deemed a “clear and present danger.” This has frequently proven to be an ineffective standard in getting a mentally ill person what they really need most — treatment.

With updates to our legal and health care system, this is a problem we can fix.

Legislation I have written, House Bill 1233, is part of that solution. It balances the need to protect civil liberties with the need to protect the public health and safety of our communities. It creates a continuum of services for seriously mentally ill individuals who are unwilling or unable to seek treatment. It also enables mental health professionals and family members to intervene sooner, and to get loved ones struggling with mental illness into a non-criminal, non-punitive, outpatient treatment program where, with appropriate healthcare, they can restore a semblance of stability to their lives.

The discussion about what to do in our nation to address gun violence will continue, and I am hopeful that systems of care available to Americans struggling with mental illness also will be a significant part of our response to prevent these horrific acts.

The truth is, we do not know whether the outcome in Parkland, Florida would have been different had Nikolas Cruz received intervention before he obtained weapons and ammunition. But that is precisely the point: We should not have to wonder; we ought to have made treatment accessible, regardless.

In Pennsylvania, we can help avert looming danger by helping people with serious mental illness before it is too late. I urge my colleagues in the Pennsylvania Senate to consider HB 1233, which passed the House unanimously earlier this year. It’s time we all say, “Enough.” ••

Rep. Thomas Murt represents the 152nd Legislative District. He chairs the House Human Services Subcommittee on Mental Health and the Disabilities Caucus.