Mental illness in America

President Obama recently spoke at a White House conference on mental health. Well, it's about time.

Every time I hear about a mass shooting -- just like the one this past weekend in Santa Monica, Calif. -- I immediately brace for the news that the shooter was mentally ill. Sadly, in nearly every case, they have been. For a while, I held out hope that these events would raise awareness, that they would spark more of an effort to educate people about the identification and treatment of mental illness. But it hasn't happened. And so the violence continues: Virginia Tech; Tucson, Arizona; Aurora, Colorado; Sandy Hook. Unfortunately, there will be more.

Throughout my career as a judge in Las Vegas, I worked extensively with the mentally ill. I witnessed first-hand how our legal system treated them and I worked to make changes and improvements. As it turned out, Las Vegas had been working on creating its own mental health court, one designed to help those struggling with mental illness who are often repeat offenders committing nonviolent crimes. Most of these people self-medicate with illegal drugs because they cannot get the psychotropic drugs they need, and then they steal and commit other crimes to feed their drug habits. Most of their families have given up on them because they become unmanageable. Many others are homeless. It is a vicious cycle that just goes on and on. But the idea is that, if we provide them with the services they need, then their criminal behavior will stop.

Mental health courts are beneficial to the communities they serve in so many ways. The first is public safety; a mental health court directly reduces crime. It is also cost effective; such treatment is less expensive than jail/prison. And finally, it is simply the right thing to do.

I always say that the 100 defendants in our mental health court are the most fortunate mentally ill people in our community. They are supervised by a judge, a probation officer and a case worker. They have access to the medications they need and to structured, requisite treatment programs. This combination of services helps make it possible for many of them to reconnect with their families, obtain jobs and become productive members of our community.

We have many success stories. I remember one young man in particular who wound up in my court accompanied by his elderly parents. He was a mess, and his parents were at the end of their rope. The son suffered from severe mental illness in addition to Tardive dyskinesia, a side effect of certain anti-psychotic drugs that causes involuntary muscle spasms. Their son was physically large, couldn't communicate well and could not be controlled. Fearing for his life, his parents begged me to take him into our program, which we did. And while he stayed longer than most and wasn't necessarily problem free, he still graduated, stayed on his meds and stayed out of major trouble.

Until we are able to have open, frank discussions about mental illness and provide treatment to those who suffer from it, nothing is going to change. Even though the days of asylums are gone, the stigma remains. And even though there are good people advocating for this population, it is a difficult road; the mentally ill are not an organized group with massive lobbying power, like, let's say, the NRA.

It was so unfortunate to see Congress defeat the president's gun control legislation that involved background checks. But even that is only part of this puzzle. We must have better accessibility to mental health treatment, more education and less of a cultural stigma. No one asks to be mentally ill. Some people are born that way, or in many cases, some kind of trauma causes it to develop.

I'm glad the president spoke at that White House mental health conference. There's even a great new federal website, http://www.mentalhealth.gov, which provides information about recognizing signs of mental illness, discussing it openly and seeking treatment. But what happens now will be the key. In the past, when these tragedies have occurred, we've seen everyone get excited about reform, about raising awareness and solutions, but then, as time goes by, the attention fades into the background.

I sincerely hope that does not happen here.

Funding for public mental health treatment was one of the first things on the chopping block when state's slashed their budgets during the economic downturn. Let's see lawmakers put the money back to help those who cannot help themselves.

Maybe then we will see some changes. Maybe then we will see some tragedies averted. Maybe.

(Jackie Glass is a lawyer and former district court judge from Las Vegas. You can write to Jackie by emailing askjudgejackie@gmail.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @theJudgeGlass. This column is being provided for informational purposes only. It may not be relied upon by you as legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship.)

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