The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 18, 2012

Our View: We must stop ignoring mental illness as a problem

— In the wake of the horrific killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., politicians are now caught in a nation’s glare looking for a response.

President Obama said of yet one more mass killing “we cannot tolerate this anymore.” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a conservative Democrat and longtime NRA member, called for action on assault rifles. Conservative talk show host Joe Scarborough, who received the NRA’s highest ratings while he was in Congress, is calling for a discussion on gun control. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., called for greater background checks and curbing high-capacity clips.

Meanwhile, others — including Minnesota lawmaker Tony Cornish — have called for arming our teachers. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said the principal at Sandy Hook should have been armed. “I wish to God she had had an M-4 in her office.” 

Clearly, the debate already is steamrolling along as lawmakers address the “how” in the killings — weapons. Frankly, that’s the easiest of the answers. We as a nation will zero in on what constitutes an assault weapon and how many clips are too many, pass more regulations and feel we have done our job. But that is woefully inadequate if we continue to overlook the much bigger question of “why”?

In a recent report by the investigative magazine Mother Jones, it was found that no less than 80 percent of the perpetrators in 61 mass murders obtained their weapons legally. However, there were many recorded instances of acute paranoia, delusions and depression among them, with at least 35 of the killers committing suicide on or near the scene. (Seven others died in police shootouts regarded as “suicide by cop.”) At least 38 of them displayed signs of mental health problems prior to the killings.

Could these killings have been prevented knowing mental illness was a contributing factor? The answer is hard to pinpoint with any reasonable accuracy partly because we as a society have spent more time and money on physical illness and not enough on mental illness, its causes and treatments.

According to the World Health Organization, the United States has the highest rates of mental illness in the world. And yet we do not have a coordinated nationwide effort to address this problem and solutions. The late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., labored for years just to get insurance companies to cover mental illness treatment on a parity with other illnesses. However, to this day, the Obama administration has yet to issue guidelines for the insurance industry to follow.

America’s failure to address mental illness “is primarily a failure of political will,” says a report issued by Mental Health American in 2011. Instead, we as a nation ignore the severity of the problem.

Minnesota’s largest facility for dealing with people declared mentally ill or dangerous is in dire need of repair to address many safety concerns for staff and inmates. Lawmakers have said the state cannot afford it — but we do have that new Vikings stadium we can look forward to.

Let’s be clear: Not everyone with a mental illness is prone to violence or crime against others. But even a widespread illness such as depression, if left untreated, can cause more serious problems for the sufferer such as drug or alcohol addiction, even suicide.

As progressive a state as Minnesota professes to be, we still find just a patchwork of care where individual counties rather than a statewide system are responsible for providing publicly funded mental health services. Under present legislation we cannot force treatment on an individual unless they prove to be a harm to themselves or others. Oftentimes this is difficult and some studies have found it is not as effective.

Instead, according the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, created by President George W. Bush, what does work is access to effective services. It suggested that community-based mental health services would make it attractive for people to come in and receive care and support them in their recovery.

We must finally come together as a nation, a state, even as a community and methodically address this problem without falling into the trap of simple solutions and finding blame. We must take advantage of a nation seeking answers to address a long-ignored problem in our country. It is the least we can do for those innocents who died in Newtown to find a way of saying “no more” and mean it.