Some good that could come from Newtown

Following Newtown and other recent random mass shootings, demands for gun control have drowned out pleas to fix our broken mental health care system. But taking steps to improve our mental health care system not only would do more than gun control to prevent other random mass shootings but also would be a memorial to the victims and good for our society.

The first step needed to improve our mental health care system is to encourage individuals with a mental illness to seek treatment by correcting mistaken views that too many people have about mental illness — views that shame individuals into avoiding treatment and deter others from helping those in need.

Mental illness, like Alzheimer’s disease, is a disorder of the brain. But too many people treat the two illnesses differently. You wouldn’t say that someone chose to have Alzheimer’s disease or developed the disease because of weak character, spiritual weakness, or poor parenting, but that’s what people say about individuals with a mental illness. You wouldn’t expect someone with Alzheimer’s disease to overcome the illness through sheer willpower, but that’s what people expect from individuals with a mental illness.

Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) have succeeded in educating more and more people that mental illness is like other illnesses but have been less successful in changing views that those with a mental illness are incurable and prone to violence.

Fact is, those receiving care can get better and live productive lives. As for dangerousness, study after study has found that individuals with a serious mental illness who are treated for their illness are no more likely to commit violent acts than other individuals (but are several times more likely to be victims).

We need to train teachers and first responders how to spot signs of mental illness and help the ill obtain treatment. Many communities have been giving police officers Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, which has been found to significantly reduce injuries to police officers responding to a mental health crisis, reduce the need to make arrests, and help individuals with a mental illness receive proper treatment.

It’s particularly important to identify individuals starting to show signs of having a mental illness because treatment is most effective when begun early. Early treatment protects the brain from additional harm caused by the illness.

If you’re going to encourage people to seek treatment, you have to make it available. Many states have been balancing their budgets by reducing what care they provide. Alabama, Alaska, Illinois, and South Carolina have reduced their mental health care budgets by more than 30 percent over the past several years. Medicaid’s Institution for Mental Diseases (IMD) exclusion prohibits Medicaid from reimbursing states for care provided by psychiatric hospitals.

Money isn’t saved by cutting care. The costs of untreated mental illness to affected individuals and society are staggering: reduced productivity, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, criminal activity, incarceration, early death, and wasted lives.