There are increasing numbers of people being diagnosed with mental illnesses and a receding stigma when it comes to seeking treatment, but a shortage of dollars to help all those who need it.
That was one of the key points driven home at a forum on mental health issues hosted by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, at Courthouse Square Tuesday night. Called “After Newtown: A Community Conversation on Violence and Severe Mental Illness,” it mixed policy nuts-and-bolts with personal stories of individuals who have been treated for mental health disorders and professionals from schools and social service agencies who are among the first to intervene.
“There seems to be a significant increase in mental illness among our children, unfortunately,” said Roberta DiLorenzo, superintendent of the Washington School District. “As they get older, their behavior gets a lot more aggressive and a lot more difficult.”
DiLorenzo was one of the panelists who joined Murphy for the discussion in the chambers used by the county’s board of commissioners, along with Larry Maggi, a commissioner and Murphy’s unsuccessful Democratic opponent in the 2012 general election; Mel Blount, a former cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers who directs the Mel Blount Youth Home in Claysville; Joe Zupancic, an attorney and member of the Canon-McMillan School Board; Gene Vittone, the district attorney of Washington County; and Abigail Schlesinger, who directs the Outpatient Behavioral Health and Child and Family Counseling Center for the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
Murphy hosted a forum on mental health issues in Washington, D.C. earlier this month, and a similar give-and-take in Mt. Lebanon Monday.
Since the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 students and six teachers and administrators were killed by 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza, a dialogue about mental health issues and treatment has emerged at the same time as a more contentious argument on the availability of assault weapons. Murphy, a gun rights advocate, said there are those “who want to keep some guns out of the hands of all people. I want to keep all guns out of the hands of some people.”
Along with consuming a chunk of resources earmarked for schools, as DiLorenzo noted, Maggi said more than 65 percent of the inmates in the Washington County jail have mental health issues, and 30 percent are taking some sort of medication to keep their demons at bay. That also takes taxpayer dollars and “not everyone should be in jail.”
Lynne Loresch, the executive director of the Mental Health Association of Washington, was among members of the public who attended the forum, and she explained that “the system is under siege. For 10 years, the state budget has been cut. … You have to get your person to the services. Early identification is critical and key … brain diseases are just like heart disease.”
On Capitol Hill, Murphy has spoken out in favor of increasing research for neural and behavioral sciences, along with a look at how video games affect their users, particularly those with mental illnesses.
“If we don’t adequately fund an issue, that’s a guarantee of failure,” Zupancic said.