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John Oliver: It takes a shooting to 'spark political interest in mental health'

John Oliver: It takes a shooting to 'spark political interest in mental health'
In the wake of the mass shooting in Oregon, John Oliver weighs in on America's mental health care system. (Warning: Contains strong language.) (Meredith Blake)

Following last week's mass shooting in Roseburg, Ore., John Oliver turned to the subject of mental health on Sunday's "Last Week Tonight."

As he noted, portraying a mentally ill person may be a great way to win an Oscar, but otherwise Americans are extremely reluctant to discuss the subject.

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"Perhaps the clearest sign of just how little we want to talk about mental health is that one of the only times it's actively brought up is, as we've seen yet again this week, in the aftermath of a mass shooting as a means of steering the conversation away from gun control," Oliver said. "It seems there is nothing like a mass shooting to suddenly spark political interest in mental health."

Cut to a montage of Republican candidates Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee arguing that mental health, not gun control, is the real issue behind the country's epidemic of mass shootings.

Oliver countered by arguing that the aftermath of shootings like the one in Oregon "might actually be the worst time to talk about mental health," because the conversation is misleading and can contribute to the stigma surrounding mental illness.

"The vast majority of mentally ill people are nonviolent, and the vast majority of gun violence is committed by non-mentally ill people," Oliver said. "In fact, mentally ill people are far likelier to be the victims of gun violence than the perpetrators."

But OK, fine, if politicians like Huckabee really do want to have a serious conversation about mental health -- a point Oliver seriously questioned, given the former Arkansas governor's poor track record in this department -- then it's a conversation the comedian was willing to have.

"If now is our only opportunity to have a public discussion about mental health, perhaps we should do it," he conceded.

From there Oliver laid out the grim statistics: An estimated 10 million people each year suffer from severe mental illness, and yet our system for dealing with the issue "is a mess and always has been." Since President John F. Kennedy signed a bill in 1963 closing state-run asylums -- otherwise known as "snake pits" -- the burden of mental healthcare has been shifted to nursing homes, prisons and, alarmingly, even Greyhound buses.

The current system is "ineffective, it's expensive and it's dangerous," Oliver said, and "needs a massive overhaul."

Programs that have been shown to be effective, like assertive community treatment, are under threat because of budget cuts and Medicaid reimbursement problems -- even though they often pay for themselves.

Oliver wrapped up by urging politicians to figure out a way to fund these programs not just because they make fiscal sense, but because they save lives.

"If I remember rightly, there are some politicians who claim to be pretty motivated to address this problem," he said, returning to soundbites of Trump, et al, voicing concerns over mental health. "OK, fine, do it then. Because if we're going to constantly use mentally ill people to dodge conversations about gun control, then the very least we owe them is a .. plan."

Follow @MeredithBlake on Twitter.

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