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Shooting Raises Vexing Mental Health Issues

Despair at the massacre of innocents at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown will spur action from political leaders. It will also remind us of our limitations.

There will be changes in laws regulating the manufacture, sale and use of guns. That will be the easy part. Defining the weapons and parts to be banned or changed will continue to pose some challenges. For politicians, one attraction of gun control laws is that they do not come with a big price tag. Change the law and leave it to police, prosecutors and courts to enforce them.

Mental health remains far more complicated and expensive. In the aftermath of the Newtown killings, politicians will enter a field that holds mysteries even for the most skillful doctors. This is not intended to be flip: Every legislator ought to consult with a psychiatrist before proceeding. They need to understand the potential benefits and consequences of changes in policies. They should become familiar with what works and what's absent from the array of mental health services available to the afflicted.

I spoke last week with Surita Rao, M.D., chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center. She emphasized that a "small number of people with mental illness are prone to violence … .Every mental illness is not similar," though we often collectively think of it as bringing the same severity. The good news is that "most mental illness can be treated and managed."

Our society has spent decades chipping away at the stigma that accompanies mental illness. That stigma often keeps the afflicted from seeking treatment and telling the truth. The absence of candor from patients and their reluctant families also adds hurdles. Secrecy and denial, Dr. Rao points out, are part of mental illness in a way that they are not in treating other conditions.

There's also the effect on families. The diagnosis of most diseases will bring families together to assist a loved one and support each other through the storm. Mental illness alienates and often divides, driving loved ones away as its symptoms wear them out.

Mental illness strains private and public resources. There's a lack of beds in facilities and community care, our favored method of treatment is crowded. The mentally ill and addicted often come in unhappy contact with the criminal justice system. Connecticut provides many programs for first-time offenders that keep them out of jail. In the winter, some will find a way to get arrested on a Friday in order to spend the weekend in a warm cell.

Our prisons have become mental hospitals with little treatment offered. Because treatment of the mentally ill should include some increasing scale of independent interaction with the world, prison is a terrible place to provide ministrations.

Political leaders will have to decide if they want to sacrifice civil liberties in an effort to identify and coerce some citizens. That could mean changes in the privacy of medical records. Will they support that? Would you? How do we know what benefits come with changes? At each step of the way, we'll want to consider what difference would they have made if they'd been applied to Newtown killer Adam Lanza, and there may be no satisfactory answer.

Through the coming debate, our leaders will continue to baffle us at times. They will rail against the proliferation of guns while providing taxpayer funds to companies that sell them. State government continues to lard millions on attracting gun retailers to urban areas. Last summer, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declared, "This is what success looks like" when he announced that a Bass Pro Shops would be built in Bridgeport with state assistance. It sells a lot of guns.

It's important to remember that political leaders often incorrectly identify the source of trouble. This year began with Malloy delivering a surprising speech about what he saw as the inadequacies of public school teachers. Teachers and their advocates successfully pushed back.

He'd be unlikely to deliver those sentiments today. The teachers and other staff at the Sandy Hook Elementary School are probably a good cross section of public school professionals. They are not the problem, they are heroes. They ran toward the bullets that killed them.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at kfrennie@yahoo.com.

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