Mary Sanchez: Mental health in spotlight

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After the horrific gun rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, some Americans recently have shown their grit by going shopping. For guns and ammo.

Yes, as graves were still being dug for tiny coffins in Newtown, Conn., bidding on eBay for four Glock handgun ammunition magazines — identical to the ones carried by Adam Lanza on the day he took those children’s lives — rose to nearly $120 from their usual $45. Elsewhere, people were flocking to stores to snatch up whatever semi-automatic weaponry remained in stock.

That’s how these shootings always play out. One side says, At long last, it’s time to control guns. The other side says, Oh, dear, I better stock my arsenal while I still can.

Easy access to extremely lethal firepower is an issue we have to resolve, but it’s not the only problem made plain by these mass murder attacks. Another one is the state of mental health care.

Countless people have to deal with problems such as raising a bipolar child, or managing episodic depression and their job, or affording long-term cognitive therapy that can help them develop coping skills and thus keep them from reaching for alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. Coping with mental illness is a struggle and a burden that very few have the resources to deal with on their own. They need help.

One in four people will suffer from a mental health issue within their lifetime. At least 38,364 people committed suicide in 2010. Rates have been increasing since 2000.

Last week, a brave blog post made the rounds with the provocative headline “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” Liza Long wrote of life with her 13-year-old child: “I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.” She went on to detail how he repeatedly threatens to kill her or his siblings.

It stirred a lot of attention and even much compassion, but relatively few concrete suggestions of what we can do to help parents and children caught in this situation.

The anguish mental illness visits upon people’s lives is more preventable today than it has ever been, thanks to prescription medications, research on the brain and its chemistry, and better diagnosis and treatment programs. Yet mental health is simply not the type of problem that people like to rally around.

That’s too bad, because public funding of mental health care has been hard hit by the recession and rounds of fiscal austerity. In the past three years, at least $4.35 billion for mental health agencies has been slashed, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. Figures vary state by state, but some public systems are grappling with budgets nearly 40 percent smaller than they were just four years ago, yet demand for the services continues to rise.

Here is how the budget cuts are playing out across America: States are cutting staff, closing state hospitals, restricting the numbers served, shifting to for-profit managed care systems and reducing crisis treatment.

Here is how we “care” for people struggling with mental health in America: They are our homeless. They are emergency room patients. Prisons are stuffed with them. More than half of the nation’s prisoners have or have had a mental disorder.

Fold in societal stigmas and harmful mischaracterizations that link mental illness with evil, and it shouldn’t shock that so many people don’t benefit from appropriate care.

Mental illness is complicated, and our hesitations to deal with it are multiple. Legal quandaries exist when the patient is an adult unwilling to seek care. Still-developing children are difficult to diagnose, as are people with co-occurring issues like alcoholism paired with a mental disorder.

Adam Lanza had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome but no form of mental illness. Yet his actions would seem to indicate a mental state that was anything but healthy; a sane son does not pump four bullets into his mother and then go on a rampage against school children.

What if he’d had a caseworker? A mental health assessment of the 20-year-old would probably have revealed that he was suicidal, and that would have raised the question of whether there are guns in the home. Timely intervention might have kept this tragedy from happening.

The well-armed of America have the coffers of the NRA working for them, and far too many weak-willed members of Congress. But who do the mentally ill have?

MARY SANCHEZ writes for The Kansas City Star. Her column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc. Her e-mail address is at msanchez@kcstar.com.


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