Confusion Over Laws Impedes Aid For Mentally Ill

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2007

Authorities' abilities to identify potentially dangerous mentally ill people are crippled across the nation by the same kinds of conflicts in privacy laws that prevented state officials from being able to intervene before Seung Hui Cho went on his rampage at Virginia Tech, according to a federal report commissioned after the Blacksburg shootings that was presented to President Bush yesterday.

Because school administrators, doctors and police officials rarely share information about students and others who have mental illnesses, troubled people don't get the counseling they need, and authorities are often unable to prevent them from buying handguns, the report says.

The report was released on the day that the House of Representatives passed a bill designed to make it more difficult for people with mental health problems, such as Cho, to buy firearms.

Lawmakers said the measure, the first major gun-control legislation since 1994, would improve the national gun background check system by requiring states to report their list of mentally ill people who are prohibited from buying firearms to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Cho, who killed 32 students and faculty members April 16 before turning a gun on himself, had been deemed mentally ill and a danger to himself in December 2005, but that information was not available in the computer systems used by the outlets that sold him guns.

The Democrat-backed legislation was crafted in coordination with the National Rifle Association, increasing its chances of becoming law, lawmakers said yesterday.

The federal report released yesterday was commissioned by Bush, who ordered Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to meet with school officials, mental health experts and local leaders in 12 states to figure out how to better address some of the issues raised by the Virginia Tech case.

The report found that teachers and school administrators fear they might be breaking the law if they share student information. In many cases, the report said, officials have more power to share information than they realize.

"One of the most important things we found is that many of the obstacles are perceived," Leavitt said. "People don't understand what they can share and what they can't share and that we need to do a much better job educating educators, the mental health community and law enforcement that they can, in fact, share information when a person's safety or a community's safety is in fact potentially endangered."

In a statement, Bush said that record-sharing among officials in health care, law enforcement and other areas "must improve."

Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger said that "based on my quick review, the report unearthed the deep complexities of the issues facing college campuses today. We believe that this will further inform the national and our state discussion on the nexus between societal safety and personal freedoms."

One of the nation's leading advocacy groups for the mentally ill said that the report doesn't reveal anything that wasn't already known and that it ignores the need for more funding for people with mental health problems.

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