Mary Sanchez: Mentally ill need help

12/23/2012 12:00 AM

12/21/2012 5:14 PM

Easy access to extremely lethal firepower is an issue we have to resolve, but it’s not the only problem made plain by the horrific gun rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School. 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 his lifetime. At least 38,364 people committed suicide in 2010. Rates have been increasing since 2000.

After the Newtown, Conn., shooting, 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 but 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 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. 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. Particularly hard-hit is programming meant to be easily accessible within communities.

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.

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 schoolchildren and their teachers.

A mental health assessment of the 20-year-old probably would have revealed that he was suicidal, and that would have raised the question of whether there were guns in the home. Timely intervention might have kept this tragedy from happening.

The well-armed of America have the coffers of the National Rifle Association working for them, and far too many weak-willed members of Congress. But who do the mentally ill have? Who do those who care for them have to make sure they are not forgotten in between tragedies?

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