New federal firearm and mental health law: University of Michigan experts react

School lockers

Q&A with Justin Heinze and Hsing-Fang Hsieh

Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was signed into law June 25, 2022.

In the wake of President Biden's signing of a new Bipartisan Safer Communities Act that focuses on firearm injury prevention, school safety and mental health services, experts from the University of Michigan reacted to the law's intent and provisions.

Justin Heinze and Hsing-Fang Hsieh are co-investigators at the National Center for School Safety at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Heinze is an associate professor of Health Behavior and Health Education, faculty lead for Public Health IDEAS for Preventing Firearm Injuries and part of the University of Michigan Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention.

Hsieh is an assistant research scientist​ at Michigan Public Health who studies adolescent resilience, youth violence and violence victimization. She is co-investigator for the National Center for School Safety and part of the leadership team of the Prevention Research Collaborative.

Stephanie Salazar is the manager of outreach and education programs at the University of Michigan Eisenberg Family Depression Center. She works with University of Michigan faculty and public school district leaders and students on the Peer-to-Peer Depression Awareness Project, a mental health program for middle and high school students.

What is your reaction to the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act?

Heinze: In public health, we are trained to think ecologically; the assumption is that you cannot solve a multifaceted problem like firearm injury burden focused on just one level, like individual interventions. Rather, you need action at the individual, interpersonal, community, policy and societal levels, and I am delighted to see evidenced-informed approaches represented within the legislation to complement some of the work occurring on the ground in communities around the country.

Certainly, as a school safety researcher, I'm glad to see attention directed toward improving building security and training school personnel to respond to student mental health concerns. But now it's time to turn our attention to how these strategies are implemented in practice. Every context is different and we'll need to be mindful of how to translate these approaches to individual school communities.

Hsieh: It's certainly encouraging to see that a good portion of the bill draws attention to school safety and mental health. We know that our school community desperately needs resources and support for identifying and implementing evidence-based practices.

Salazar: It is hopeful to know that our leaders are addressing this urgent need. We are hopeful that future federal and state-level investment can lead to effective, evidence-based mental health programs that increase awareness, early intervention, peer support, suicide risk management and more.

Will funding attached to this bill fund any strategies that have been proven successful in your research?

Heinze: Even though extreme risk protection orders were designed with intimate partners in mind, there have been a handful of cases where ERPOs were filed on behalf of a concern related to harm in or toward a school. Several colleagues are systematically cataloging how ERPOs are filed, reviewed and enacted in a number of states and as more of this information comes to light, it will be important to understand whether they can serve as a means to protect students when there is an immediate danger.

Hsieh: The evidence supporting positive school climate, threat assessment and youth engagement in enhancing school safety has been accumulating. Our team also has seen preliminary but promising results of using an anonymous reporting system combined with training for students, teachers and school staff to recognize warning signs to help prevent school violence. However, for a multifaceted problem like school safety and firearm violence, it's unlikely to see a single safety approach being effective in a sustainable way. The consideration of taking a comprehensive approach with multiple strategies spanning from prevention, assessment and response to building security and trauma-informed practices is very important and more likely to help for the long run.

What are some research-proven school interventions that could be implemented with the new funding?

Heinze: Poor mental health does not cause firearm violence, but I think the bill's focus on mental health is absolutely critical. Teaching students and staff to recognize warning signs of internalizing behaviors or mental health crises—along with increasing access to mental health supports for students in need—is both protective for the small minority of students at risk for perpetrating violence and also promotive for any student who might be struggling with mental health challenges. By supporting positive mental well-being, the evidence supports both direct and indirect reductions in violence, and any violence with a firearm involved is much more likely to be lethal.

Hsieh: I would love to see two things happening and these are what many of us as school safety researchers are resolute to do. One is the expansion of research that can eventually inform best practices on mental health and other school safety interventions. The other is more research and intervention considering approaches that are inclusive for minority youth, whether it's race, ethnicity, gender identify and sexual orientation, immigrant status and so on. The safety and well-being perceived by all, rather than by part of the student body/school community, is essential for us to move the needle.

The act includes funding for school mental health programs. Why is this needed?

Salazar: We have been and continue to face an unprecedented mental health crisis for our kids. With COVID-19 causing disruptions to routines and social relationships, our students' ability to learn and thrive as they deserve is at stake. Scientific research shows that an emotionally healthy learner is a better learner, leading to improved academic and social outcomes. Parents and community members cannot do this alone. We need system-level solutions.

What does the University of Michigan offer to help schools with this issue?

Salazar: Through our school-based outreach programs, the U-M Depression Center has a history of supporting teacher training and peer-based programming, and providing in-school initiatives that help ensure students have equitable access to mental health services. For example, our Peer-to-Peer program uses a "peer advocate" method to train high school students to understand depression and effective methods for reaching and listening to their peers. The goal is to create a supportive environment that allows students to connect with information and treatment resources. Our data suggests it results in greater awareness and knowledge of depression and improved school climate surrounding mental health issues.