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Features & Columns

White House Considers Exploring Links Between Mental Health and Violent Behavior

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White House Considers Exploring Links Between Mental Health and Violent Behavior

2019-08-23 10:00:531 Oct 2018 01:53 AM EST

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Donald Trump (Image source: Public domain)



While Donald Trump talked continuously right after the weekend that saw two mass shootings about the need for background checks and that he knew he'd find the support, he's stopped mentioning it after a conversation with the National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre. 

Instead, he is focusing on keeping guns away from those who are mentally ill, leaving the question of what they will do to limit the mentally ill from having guns.


The White House was briefed on a proposal to find a way to identify the early signs that someone who is mentally ill will eventually engage in violent behavior. 

This is seen as a way Trump can straddle the line. He can still do something that will be seen as helping the mass shootings situation without upsetting the NRA by putting restrictions on gun owners.


This would be part of another drive to establish a division of the Health and Human Services Department — Health Advanced Research Projects Agency (HARPA). The director would be appointed by the president and have a separate budget, according to people with knowledge of the proposal. 

This directive would be modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research branch of the Pentagon.


The Suzanna Wright Foundation developed the parameters for HARPA, and it was discussed in June 2017 by Domestic Policy Council officials and senior White House staff.  

But the plan is now being pushed by the Suzanne Wright Foundation after the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The administration was approached last week with the suggestion of "Safe House" — "Stopping Aberrant Fatal Events by Helping Overcome Mental Extremes."


Volunteer data would be used to identify "neurobehavioral signs" seen in "someone headed toward a violent explosive act."  

With an estimated cost of $40 to $60 million, the project would take approximately four years, said lead scientific adviser on HARPA, Geoffrey Ling. He's also a founding director of DARPA's Biological Technologies Office.


"Everybody would be a volunteer, said Ling. "We're not inventing new science here. We're analyzing it so we can develop new approaches." He added, "This is going to have to be done using scientific rigor." 

Not everyone believes mental health and mass shootings are linked, however. Experts say mental illness sometimes plays a part, but it hasn't been able to predict violence.


Studies show no more than 25 percent of mass shooters have a mental illness that has been diagnosed. Instead, the factors that usually show up are a strong sense of resentment, a desire for notoriety, obsession with other mass shooters, a history of domestic violence, narcissism, and an access to weapons. 

Yet, Trump is placing the blame on the mentally ill. "We're looking at the whole gun situation," he said last week. "I do want people to remember the words 'mental illness..' These people are mentally ill. ... I think we have to start building institutions again because, you know, if you look at the '60s and '70s, so many of these institutions were closed."


A person with knowledge of the discussions said Trump reacted "very positively" to the idea of HARPA and was "sold on the concept." It's not known if he has reviewed the "Safe Home" concept. 

"Every time this has been brought up inside the White House — even up to the presidential level, it's been very well-received," said a person familiar with the discussions.


"HARPA is the health-care equivalent of DARPA, and it's a great legacy project for the president, one he is uniquely positioned to get done." 

"There is no doubt that addressing this issue helps the president deal with two issues he has yet to find real success on: one is the health-care front, and one is the gun-violence front," said another person.


When Trump was hosting "The Apprentice" on NBC, Suzanne Wright was the chair of the network. After she passed away of pancreatic cancer, her husband Bob Wright created the foundation. HARPA was initially a project to improve the mortality rate of pancreatic cancer patients through research. 

The widower sees Ivanka Trump as the perfect person to support HARPA and has briefed her on the proposal.


"It would be perfect for her to do it — we need someone with some horsepower — someone like her driving it. ... It could get done," said someone familiar with the discussions. 

"We'd be able to put every resource of federal government, from the highest levels of the scientific community, to say: 'This is how people with these problems should be treated and have limited access to firearms.' "


HARPA would develop "breakthrough technologies with high specificity and sensitivity for early diagnosis of neuropsychiatric violence," says a copy of the proposal. "A multi-modality solution, along with real-time data analytics, is needed to achieve such an accurate diagnosis." 

Data would be collected, according to the proposal, by IoT gadgets such as Apple Watches, Fitbits, Amazon Echo, and Google Home, and would also utilize "powerful tools" of health-care providers, such as fMRIs, tractography,and image analysis.


"DARPA is a brilliant model that works. They have developed the most transformational capabilities in the world for national security," said Suzanne Wright Foundation president Liz Field. 

She added that those techniques had not been applied to health care as of yet, stating, "We're not leveraging the tools and technologies available to us to improve and save lives."

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