Hudson Valley mental health professionals are concerned that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's new gun control law will frighten some people into avoiding therapy.
A provision in the new law that's slated to take effect in March will require psychologists, psychiatrists and others to report potentially dangerous patients to local officials. The officials, in turn, will cross-check those reports with a new state gun registration database. If the individuals who are reported possess firearms, the police can suspend licenses and confiscate guns.
Although the new requirement is well-intentioned, given the history of senseless gun violence by disturbed individuals in the country, some experts believe it likely will have a chilling effect on mental health care.
"Professionals would have to report to some state bureaucrat if a client of theirs has suicidal or homicidal ideations," said Polly Kerrigan, senior vice president of operations at Family Services of Westchester. "It is a violation of the patient-therapist relationship. It would deter people from seeking mental health services."
Equally concerning to mental health professionals is that patients who continue to seek help might censor themselves in therapy, defeating the purpose of counseling and escaping the new requirements of the new law.
"This might serve as an obstacle to people being honest about their thoughts and feelings," said Stephanie Madison, president of the Mental Health Association of Rockland County. "Are they now not going to share things with me because their names might be passed on?"
Kerrigan, Madison and others said they were not aware of the reporting requirements in the new law until the law was enacted as the New York Safe Act on Jan. 15, a month after the tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn.
Heralded as the toughest gun regulation in the country, the law also bans assault weapons and limits magazines to a maximum of seven rounds. The law was approved with little debate. State lawmakers already have admitted they might need to amend it because provisions likely to prove impractical were included in the rush to take action in the aftermath of Newtown.
Critics have launched lawsuits against the law, saying it violates numerous civil rights. Cuomo maintains that the act is constitutional.
"All reporting will be conducted in the strictest confidence in accordance with state and federal confidentiality requirements," said Richard Azzopardi, the governor's spokesman. "We will work with the mental health community during the implementation of this critically important part of the New York Safe Act."
If state officials ask for his advice, Dr. Andrew Levin, medical director of Westchester Jewish Community Services, said he will tell them that he and his colleagues already report truly dangerous patients to the police. Levin feels that the new law will compel many mental health professionals to identify people as dangerous, if only because professionals might be liable in the event a patient they have not reported later commits a violent act with a firearm.
"Everybody with a severe mental illness could be reported," Levin said. "There are risks that range into this area of overreporting. Everyone with schizophrenia is potentially dangerous, so therefore we are going to report all of those patients with schizophrenia?"
In Westchester County, the county Department of Mental Health will receive doctors and therapists' reports on patients, said Commissioner Grant Mitchell.
Mitchell was glad to see the state establish regulations to curb access to guns by patients who are dangerously disturbed. Under current federal and state laws, people suffering from serious mental illness are prohibited from possessing guns, but there was no mechanism to enforce those rules, Mitchell said.
State officials have yet to issue explicit instructions on how to collect and transfer patients' names, Mitchell said. He is eager to see how the process will work. Echoing Levin's concerns, he is worried his office might be swamped with reports.
"We are always concerned about an unfunded mandate. What's the volume of calls we're going to get and how much time will it take us? We might have to manage this new activity without any resources," he said. "We're not sure if we are going to get 10 calls a month or 1,000 calls."