Monday, December 22, 2014

The poor state of mental health care

Posted on Dec. 27, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.

Mary Sanchez

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

As graves were being dug for tiny coffins in Newtown, Conn., bidding on eBay for four Glock ammunition magazines — identical to those carried by Adam Lanza when he took those children’s lives — rose to nearly $120 from their usual $45. Elsewhere, people flocked 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, “Stock up while you can.”

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

Countless people face problems such as raising a bipolar child, or managing depression and their job, or finding affordable long-term cognitive therapy that can help them develop coping skills and thus keep them from reaching for alcohol or drugs. They need help.

One in four people will suffer from a mental health issue in 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 told how he repeatedly threatens to kill her or his siblings.

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

The anguish mental illness brings 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 rally around.

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.

Adam Lanza had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but no form of mental illness. Yet his actions seemingly would 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 series of “what ifs” certainly come to mind. 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 were guns in the home. Timely intervention might have prevented this tragedy.

The well-armed of America have 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 such as Newtown?

Mary Sanchez is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. Write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at msanchez@kcstar.com.