Commentary: We must address mental illness more aggressively

The Kansas City StarJanuary 14, 2011 

Refresh your memory of headlines out of Missouri from September.

The similarities to the news of today are striking: A 22-year-old community college student with a prior diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia attacked a dean at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley.

The young man, described as an anarchist, believed he had slashed the neck of Gov. Jay Nixon, who was scheduled to appear on campus that day.

If any long-term ramifications come from the Tucson, Ariz., shootings, they shouldn’t be ramblings about the tone of political discourse or sure-to-fail attempts at gun control.

Can we finally do a better job of addressing the mentally ill?

Sadly, the very advocates whose clients could most benefit moved to nix the discussion. And now, they’ve been overrun by the rush to make political points.

As questions arose about Jared Loughner’s mental status, many were quick to stress that the vast majority of people who struggle with mental illness pose no violent threat to society. This is true.

And yet, I’d argue that an opportunity is passing as the public grows weary and saturated with the news coverage.

Increasingly, society leans toward protecting us from the relatively few among the mentally ill who take to violence, rather than taking on the issues entangled with doing more to aid the larger numbers of people suffering.

The attacks at Virginia Tech prompted well-thought-out changes on many college campuses, including locally. Columbine did the same for high schools. Complicated policies and procedures to lock down buildings and alert staff and students exist, all necessary precautions.

But how about putting more effort toward alleviating other issues for those same institutions? By the time a disorder like schizophrenia manifests itself, a person is often of legal age, capable of standing in the way of their own treatment.

A damning truth about America is that our prisons are where many mentally ill reside. Such untreated struggles shouldn’t have to beget a criminal record, not with dramatic breakthroughs in prescription and psychological therapies.

A Google search can tally the number of dead from these horrible attacks. A less-tangible factoid is the cost as people function day to day, but less fully, because of faltering mental health. Depression alone accounts for a staggering loss in human capital.

But the current pitch for less government, coupled with the deep crisis for state and local budgeting, isn’t amenable to increasing access to mental health treatment.

Long-term, money and lives would be saved. But I’m doubtful politicians can successfully make the pitch. It’s easier to launch into chastising or defending the vitriolic nature of politics and skip the issue behind the headlines.

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