That the WA Government is considering tightening the process by which people can hold a gun licence in this State is commendable.
Reviewing data to assess correlations and commonalities is the only responsible action to take.
As a 26-year practising psychologist who has developed several mental health screening tools and who has been a strong public global advocate of routine mental health checks, it’s gobsmacking that for one of the most foreseeable health issues on the planet, we don’t conduct routine mental health checks on any of us, much less those with physical health issues and substance use issues.
But suggesting that mental health checks will reduce shooting fatalities, I believe, is a long bow to draw. Mental health issues will be experienced by more than 50 per cent of us in our lifetime — most likely depression, anxiety or substance use disorders.
There are significant barriers to granting or denying a gun licence based on mental health. Most mental health issues are cyclical, and may or may not be present at the time of assessment. Those that are present would require self-reporting, given the lack of objective measures of mental health.
Asking people about previous mental health diagnosis or treatment could mean that some people won’t seek treatment or will not be truthful about mental health issues for fear it becomes disclosable. This is already the case for life insurance, travel in some cases and employment and has more negative impacts than positive. Besides, many are undiagnosed, and of those that are it could be said that self-awareness, coping strategies and treatments are protective factors and not a risk.
Screening for AVOs or previous violence may be more predictive, but this is not simply a mental health issue. Statistics cited in the Government’s announcement that 50 per cent of gun fatalities involve mental health is in part reference to homicide and in part, suicide. Diagnosis of AVOs or previous violence may be more predictive of homicide but this is not simply a mental health issue.
Personality disorders involving delusions, paranoia or pathological jealousy are more concerning and more persistent than other mental health issues. However they are also harder to diagnose unless people are in the psychiatric system or their behaviour is on record.
In 2019, there were 0.72 gun deaths by suicide per 100,000 people in WA. Suicides in general were 15.82 per 100 000 people. While 83 per cent of people who die by suicide are thought to have a mental health issue, diagnoses such as depression only require a two-week period of symptoms and it is unlikely gun access is sought solely for the purpose of self-harm. Sadly, we know all too well from the data that of the more than 3400 suicides in Australia each year, most do not hold gun licences. If people want to take their own lives, having a gun is not a pre-requisite.
There is no simple solution and we should have a rigorous debate, always, about the strength of gun licensing and whether we can do better.
The best solution is an agile one where red flags can result in suspending or removing licences to reduce temporary changes to mood, impulsivity or behaviour. It is unlikely that except in the most obvious of cases, a mental health screen at application will be a protective factor.
Careful thought should also be given as to what we are expecting to achieve, whether self-reporting or formal diagnosis (both flawed focus points) are sufficient, and whether we will deter more people from seeking support, than lives we will save.
Peta Slocombe is a psychologist and CEO at Performance Story.
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