Mental-health system in need of attention

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In the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the discussions on television and letters to the editors of this newspaper and others across the country have focused largely on gun-control issues, with some passing references to the need for improved mental-health care in this country.


The two issues should be getting at least equal billing.


In the past two years, we have seen the shootings of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in Arizona, the killings of a dozen people in a Colorado theater and now Newtown, with many, many more multiple shooting incidents in between. In the days after the Newtown massacre, a gunman here in Pennsylvania went on a rampage that left three people dead and three police officers wounded before he was killed by state troopers, and in New York state, a man who had served 17 years behind bars for the hammer slaying of his grandmother set a fire and then shot and killed two firefighters who came to the scene, before killing himself.


In all of these well-publicized cases, it seems clear that the perpetrators were not in control of their mental faculties, and with the relatively easy access to guns in this country, it also seems clear that we must do more to help people get the mental-health care they need.


Mental illnesses are hardly rare. The Kim Foundation, which advocates for people with mental ailments, cites figures showing that about 30,000 people commit suicide in this country every year, and more than 90 percent of those people have a “diagnosable mental disorder.” Further, the group notes about one of every 100 Americans, in any given year, suffers from schizophrenia, and about 8 million Americans have a post-traumatic stress disorder.


An article posted online on the Washington Post website, titled “Seven facts about America’s mental health-care system,” points out that, in general, access to mental-health care is worse than access to other types of care. The article said nearly 90 million Americans live in parts of the country that are designated by the federal government as “Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas.”


That problem has been exacerbated, the Post article said, by the move away from institutionalization of the mentally ill over the past few decades and the failure to provide commensurate treatment opportunities in the communities where those people now live.


Said Doris A. Fuller, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, which favors broader grounds under which a person can be involuntarily committed for mental-health care, “We’re protecting civil rights at the expense of health and safety. Deinstitutionalization has gone way too far.”


Providing access to mental-health care for all who need it won’t solve all of the problems, or prevent another incident such as the ones in Arizona, Colorado and Connecticut. Not every person will accept care when offered. Nor will all continue with recommended treatment or continue to stay on medications that are prescribed. But the current system certainly is not working.


Improving the system of care for those with mental illnesses also would not be an inexpensive proposition, and we have seen the howling that greeted President Obama’s efforts to improve access to health care, in general.


The president has appointed a high-level task force to address gun control. We would like to see the same attention paid to care for people with mental illnesses.


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