The TADS Beacon

Responding to Newtown
Friday, December 13, 2013

 

Nearly a year has passed since the shooting in Newtown, CT, and the reality of the situation is settling in on the affected families.  Several difficult days have already been endured: Christmas, birthdays, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, and now the first anniversary.  Our nation mourns along with these families because this crime was particularly senseless, taking the lives of innocent children and heroic educators.  My own personal experience allows me to understand, to some extent, what the parents of the deceased children in Newtown are going through, as my son died far too young.  But I also have sympathy for the family of the shooter, because my son suffered from mental illness and died by suicide four years ago.

Newtown has captured the attention of the American public and it is a story which keeps coming back into our consciousness, most recently with the release of the report of the state attorney.  Mass murders seem to be gaining in frequency in our country, but Newtown is different than the rest because of the complete irrationality of killing so many who were so young.  It doesn’t seem possible to make sense out of this tragedy, but it does seem appropriate to ask ourselves what we have learned from it.

While much attention has been given to the issue of access to fire arms, I would like to see more attention given to the issue of access to mental health care.  We will never know for certain whether active mental health care would have prevented this shooter from going on his rampage, but I do believe that if mental health care were more accessible, then several tragedies would be averted each year.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over a quarter of American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.  And the problem seems to be growing: the rate of suicide of veterans and active military are at an all-time high, and high school guidance counselors tell me that they’ve never seen so many kids struggling with mental health issues.  Untreated mental illness can lead to tragic consequences.  It is estimated that over 90% of all people who die by suicide suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, most commonly depression.  (The irony is that depression is very treatable: 80% - 90% of people who receive treatment for depression show signs of improvement.)  But even if the end result is not suicide, a person with untreated mental illness is bound to have to endure a life of pain and difficulty.

It should be recognized that there are physical causes for mental illness.  A person doesn’t choose to be depressed, just as a person doesn’t choose to be left-handed or near-sighted.  As Patrick Kennedy puts it: “I have mental illness.  I am someone in recovery from addiction and mental illness and these are brain illnesses.”

But more than just a personal tragedy or a public health issue, mental illness is affecting our economy.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 217 million work days are lost each year due to mental disorders, and a recent study estimated that the indirect costs of mental illness are $79B each year.  For example, 27% of people with diabetes also suffer from depression, but the treatment for diabetes costs four times as much for that 27% than for the rest of the people with diabetes.

But why is it so difficult for individuals to access mental health resources?  Part of the problem is that Americans tend to be poorly informed consumers when it comes to mental health services.  Most parents would be perfectly comfortable to go to the bus stop and ask their neighbors for a medical referral for their child’s sports injury, but would be too embarrassed to openly ask for a referral for a therapist for that same child.  But even when a parent pro-actively seeks mental health care for his child, he may find that care is not readily available, which can lead to tragic consequences as in the case of Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds.

The deceased mother of the Newtown shooter has been roundly criticized for neglecting to provide her son with the appropriate mental health care for his Asperger’s Disorder, which was diagnosed in 2005.  But shouldn’t blame also be directed at a society which stigmatizes young people with mental health issues?  Doesn’t this situation only serve to discourage people from seeking care for their disorders?

Mental health care will not be readily accessible to most Americans until society brings this topic out of the shadows.  We cannot expect governments to adequately fund mental health, until we are willing to openly discuss issues surrounding mental illness, until individuals who suffer from mental illness no longer feel the need to hide their malady from public view, until society stops being squeamish about mental illness and recognizes that it is an illness of the brain and deserves to be treated just as cancer and diabetes and other physical illnesses are treated.

A government decree will not solve this problem – it needs to start with you and me.  We need to recognize mental illness for what it is – a health problem – and then start to handle it with basic human compassion.  People who suffer from mental illness need to be loved, cared for, and, most of all, treated.

And the next time you go to the bus stop, ask your neighbors if anyone can recommend a good therapist.

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