What Obama's Executive Action Means for Mental Health Funding

PHOTO: Attorney General Loretta Lynch listens as President Barack Obama speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Jan. 4, 2016.PlayPablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
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The president announced today that he is proposing new steps that he says will help decrease injuries and deaths related to gun violence, including new proposals to bolster access to mental health care.

President Obama, speaking to reporters at the White House this afternoon, described how his proposals would work. He was flanked by people who had lost loved ones in past shootings.

"For every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken by a bullet from a gun, every time I think about those kids it gets me mad,” Obama said. "All of us need to stand up and protect our citizens."

To combat gun violence, Obama is taking multiple executive actions. He wants to spend $500 million to increase access to mental health care and mental health information for conducting background checks. He called on different agencies including the Social Security Administration to report more data to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to bolster background checks.

Obama made clear that the vast majority of people with mental health issues are not violent and that they are far more likely to be victims of a violent crime.

"We must continue to remove the stigma around mental illness and its treatment and make sure that these individuals and their families know they are not alone. While individuals with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, incidents of violence continue to highlight a crisis in America’s mental health system," Obama said in a statement released Monday. "In addition to helping people get the treatment they need, we must make sure we keep guns out of the hands of those who are prohibited by law from having them."

Mental health experts applauded the increase in funding, but said they remained concerned about the continued association between mental health issues and violence.

Ron Honberg, national director of policy and legal affairs for National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said the funding could provide a great help for people seeking care.

"First of all, the $500 million would be a welcome step and we certainly applaud that. It's a very positive thing," Honberg told ABC News. He pointed out that states across the country cut mental health funding during the recession by approximately $4 billion.

"That’s a huge figure and very hard to make up," he added.

Honberg said he wanted to know more about how the increased background checks will work in terms of barring certain individuals from buying guns with mental health illness.

"The criteria should be based on what science tells us [who the people are] who pose enhanced risk for violence," Honberg said. "The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent."

Dr. Liza Gold, a forensic psychiatrist at Georgetown University Medical Center, said the money will be extremely helpful to fund a mental health system that is "in crisis." She expressed concern about the possibility of using mental health data in background checks. For example, the 75,000 people who are unable to manage their Social Security benefits because of a disability may be barred from buying guns based on the new rule. Gold points out that those people suffer from a range of disabilities, like depression, anxiety and personality disorders.

To set up the background checks "in a way that stigmatizes a large swath of people simply because they have mental illness and qualify for benefits…it’s discriminatory," Gold told ABC News. "There is no evidence that this is a category of people who are at risk of committing gun violence."

Gold said that some people who have had treatment for mental illness are already legally barred from buying a gun, including those who have been committed to a mental institution by a court.