In the aftermath of the horrible school massacre last Friday, a solemn President Obama announced that we have to come together, regardless of the politics, and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like the one that befell Newtown.
While stricter gun control laws, especially regarding assault rifles, are an easy target for many anti-gun proponents, there is certainly room for "meaningful action" in the mental health care system as well as the Hollywood film and video game industry. Violent videos and movies can have a dangerous influence on impressionable young minds, especially when the viewers include fragile individuals who have trouble discerning video game violence from the real world. Throw in the fact that there are weapons easily accessible in the home and you have a recipe for a Netown-type disaster.
The mental health field also needs immediate attention.
Reports indicate that the Newtown gunman had the means to be afforded some professional help to a point. Whether or not the mother, who is said to have been devoted to her son, could have done more in obtaining specialized treatment is a question yet to be answered. The decision by the mother to use her registered guns and the shooting range to "bond" with her troubled son certainly did not seem to be a wise parental decision.
The Newtown tragedy does put a renewed emphasis on the importance of mental health services, many of which have been defunded due to budget restraints at the federal and state government level. When governments at any level see that revenues are down, spending on social welfare programs are often the ones on the chopping block and sacrificed.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, the state allocated $662 million for its mental health programs in fiscal year 2012, a decline from the $717 million in 2011.
Pennsylvania is not alone. According to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, other states throughout the nation with budget shortfalls have cut at least $4.35 billion in public mental health spending from 2009 to 2012. This marked the largest reduction in funding since the 1960s and 70s.
In addition 29 states reported they've had to close more than 3,200 inpatient beds for mentally ill people over the last four years. These cuts have also forced agencies to make layoffs and reduce funding to community providers.
Three months ago, Christopher Wysocki, an administrator for the Juniata Valley Tri-County Behavioral and Developmental Services, spoke on behalf of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania about the defunding problem before the state's Human Services Committee. The panel was hearing testimony from county officials, advocates and professionals about the 10 percent cut in state aid for county-run human services programs.
Wysocki said that when community supports for the mentally ill are cut, it translates into increases in hospitalization and emergency use as well as in the number of mentally ill individuals in our jails and prisons.
Anne Leisure, director of legislative services for the Pennsylvania Community Providers Association, said that outpatient clinics, often the sole source of mental health treatment for thousands of people, are in danger of complete collapse. When this occurs, patients, many in need of specialized and extended care, are shuffled to hospital emergency rooms, which are also being taxed to the limit.
Whenever a severe mental case can't be afforded specialized care or falls through the cracks of the system, the risks of having a Newtown-style catastrophe increase dramatically.
By Jim Zbick