ALBANY -- Psychiatric health advocates on Thursday called for better care and more public education about mental illness in the wake of recent fatal shootings.
Treatment of mentally ill people, as well as gun control, have come to the forefront of national attention after a gunman last month killed 27 people, mostly children, and himself in Newtown, Conn. Also in December, a man killed two firefighters in Webster as they responded to a blaze.
Statewide groups at the news conference near the Capitol referenced news coverage of the murders that has labeled mentally ill people as "crazies," "monsters" and "lunatics."
They referenced research that shows most mentally ill people are not violent and, in fact, they're more likely to be victims of crime.
"We're not only horrified about these deaths and tragedies, but we're horrified at recent statements and media coverage that has rushed to judgment, viciously attacked people with mental illnesses here in New York and around the country," said Harvey Rosenthal, executive director of the state Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services. "This is scapegoat-ism - the worst kind. It amounts to a virtual public lynching."
The groups lauded steps Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature have taken to move institutionalized patients to more integrated or community settings, as required by federal law. But there is more work to be done, Rosenthal said.
Glenn Liebman, CEO of the state's Mental Health Association, said New York should allocate funding for further treatment and support of mentally ill people in their communities rather than in state hospitals.
Cuomo's Medicaid Redesign Team, which he formed last January to identify costs savings in the highly expensive program, recommended state support for housing and health homes, affordable living environments where people can get physical and mental health care, substance abuse treatment and employment counseling. The aim is to improve health outcomes and save money spent on expensive emergency care.
The state has asked the federal government to reinvest some of the money the group saved to improve Medicaid in New York.
Also, Cuomo issued an executive order early last month creating a cabinet to enforce a federal law that aims to prevent disabled people from being segregated from the general population.
Cuomo is expected to propose tougher gun-control measures in response to the shootings. He said mental health needs to be a component of any change.
"We think this is a multifaceted problem. And it's not just guns. This is also about mental health. This is also about a culture of violence that has been permeated and perpetuating," Cuomo said Wednesday.
Rosenthal said Cuomo is making progress in improving care for New York's mentally ill population.
"We are really hoping he will accelerate his own reforms," Rosenthal said.
Liebman also called for increased support for families of those with mental illness, publicizing of local 24-hour help lines and more aggressive preventative efforts, including suicide-prevention and mental-health education in schools.
The groups also pushed for New York lawmakers to reject expanding Kendra's Law. Named for Kendra Webdale, who was killed when a man with schizophrenia pushed her onto subway tracks in New York City, the 1999 law allows courts to order mentally ill people with histories of violence into outpatient treatment.
An amendment some groups pushed for last year would require jails to notify mental health officials when an inmate set to be released had been taking psychiatric medication. This would increase the number of people who would be covered under the law.
Similar subway murders recently have re-energized the push for strengthening the law, led by Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, Cattaraugus County.
"By strengthening the law, we can improve care, save money and increase safety," Young said in a statement earlier this month. "We need to be more proactive in getting people the help that they so desperately need."
Rosenthal said forcing treatment on ill individuals is not as effective as deploying peer counselors to work one-on-one with them in their own communities.
"You hear a lot about -- let's have Kendra's Law at the point of release from hospital to community," Rosenthal said. "Why not have a peer wellness coach out there working with people? That's a relationship that's going to last."