By Robert E. Davidson
5:42 PM EST, December 28, 2012
We know of no connection between the shootings at Newtown and mental illness. The most we have heard is that the shooter was an awkward kid who may or may not have had Asperger's syndrome, which has never been associated with gun violence before.
So why is the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Connecticut, the largest support, education, and advocacy group for people with mental illnesses, writing about it?
Because whenever something inexplicable happens, some people think the person who did it must have a mental illness, because who else would do such a thing? It is too much to believe that a "normal" person could be so angry or irrational as to kill 26 innocents. It happens again and again, and we rarely have the chance to ask the man who did it.
But it is not usually or predictably a mental illness. Of the three major and many smaller gun tragedies in the nation this year, only one of the perpetrators seems to have had a mental illness. The others were just angry, blaming or scapegoating some group — family, co-workers, neighbors — for whatever went wrong. It is just as "crazy" to kill adult Sikhs in Milwaukee as tiny children in Newtown, and mental illness does not explain either one.
We can't monitor all the angry people any more than we can or should monitor people with a given diagnosis. It is hard to do research on such a rare event, but we can do some things to make it even less likely.
•First, we can continue to improve mental health screening and services for children in schools. We cannot give everyone a questionnaire about evil thoughts, but we can talk and listen to kids whose anger becomes violent or who think violence solves anything. Of course, if we identify such children, we then have to provide someone for them — and their families — to talk to. Only 73 schools in Connecticut have school-based mental health clinics. The legislature approved 20 more last year, but the Department of Public Health has been slow to create them.
•Second, we can preserve the fragile programs we have for people who are at risk. The Department of Children and Families has made great strides under Commissioner Joette Katz, but we still need many more people trained to work with families in their homes. We have also given more attention to autism and Asperger's disorders recently, but services — and knowledge — are still uneven. Schools still blame students and families for being who they are and even for being bullied.
Coincidentally, this tragedy comes as the governor's budget office has ordered cuts in the programs that serve people with mental illnesses and traumatic histories. The "safety net" agencies that were spared in his first budget get the brunt of cuts in this one. We all must do our part to meet the deficit, but small human service cuts often have bigger costs in the future, as people go into crisis when their usual supports are disrupted. Stable programs mean stable people.
We cannot blame these tragedies on poverty or mental disease. We can try to identify the individuals who are at higher risk for doing such things, but we will never be very good at that. All we can do is take this opportunity to improve access to treatment for people with problems. That is not foolproof, but it is better for society and at least as accurate as blaming a large group of innocent people for what one man did.
Robert E. Davidson is president of NAMI-CT.
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