Our nation as a whole tends to stigmatize and minimize the reality and the extent of the impact of mental health issues on our country. Mental health is always on the top of the list when budgets are slashed on local, state, and national levels. Insurance companies are making excessive profits at the expense of families ability to afford services. The latest trend with insurance companies is to increase deductibles and co-pays and charge exorbitant premiums making mental health services inaccessible to many. When will we, as a country, acknowledge the negative fiscal and social impact of ignoring mental health? How many more lives must be senselessly lost for those in power to heed the call?
Certainly part of this issue is related to gun control and there has been significant discussion around that after each tragic shooting has occurred. The easy accessibility to weapons undoubtedly is something to consider. However, looking at each case the underlying issue of those who acquired guns is their emotional and mental state. The economic impact of neglecting this issue is substantial, but more importantly the cost of lives is even more significant.
I continue to hear people ask why this continues to happen --- I wonder why it doesn't happen more often, really, considering how we neglect mental health in our country and make guns so easily accessible.
Here are 3 things to consider:
1. The overall economic impact of not providing the needed mental health services. Crime rates increase putting a long term financiel burden on every state. The vicious cycle of homelessness and poverty increases resulting in higher rates of crime and violence. Research has also shown that economic inequality is directly correlated to acts of violence. The wider the spread between the rich and the poor, the higher the crime rate.
2. Mental health needs to be acknowledged, funded and recognized to be just as important as military programs. Ironically, the two are significantly linked. The suicide rate along with PTSD has increased substantially as service men and women return from war, often times with dire consequences when untreated. Examples of this including the soldier in Afghanistan who shot 16 Afghani civilians and the U.S. soldier who was accused of killing five fellow servicement at a military combat stress center in Baghdad in 2009. These are only two examples of many. The rise in the number of suicides and cases of PTSD among soldiers is staggering. A recent study showed that the suicide rate among U.S. Army personnel has increased by 80% between 2004 and 2008.
3. Untreated mental health issues beget violence, guns beget violence and violence begets violence. Policy makers have the ability to improve accessibility and quality of mental health services and to reduce the accessibility of guns. In 2009, there were an estimated 45.1 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States identified with a mental illness within the previous year. An additional 547,800 mentally ill people were on probation. Half of the offenders self reported mental health issues (not a formal diagnosis, likely meaning these numbers are higher).
Consider the violent shootings just over the past few years: the Aurora, CO movie theater shooting, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the Virginia Tech shooting, and the shooting at Texas A&M (in which a lifelong family friend of my family's lost her husband), only to name a few. All involved shooters with mental illness.
Every time a tragedy such as Newtown, CT, Aurora, CO & College Station, TX occurs, I wonder if our country is going to heed the call. It is my hope and prayer that those in power will soon wake up to the ultimate consequences of continuing to deny the impact of mental health issues on our society and recognize this as a topic worthy of funding and attention. The reality of mental health issues and the impact on our nation should not be swept under the carpet, viewed as shameful to address and the first on the budget chopping block.
As written by the Harvard Medical School, research suggests that adequate treatment of mental illness and substance abuse may help reduce rates of violence. They also state,
"Indeed, as with psychiatric treatment in general, medication treatment alone is unlikely to reduce risk of violence in people with mental illness. Interventions ideally should be long-term and include a range of psychosocial approaches, including cognitive behavioral therapy, conflict management, and substance abuse treatment. Of course, this sort of ideal treatment may be increasingly difficult to achieve in the real world, given reductions in reimbursements for mental health services, ever-shorter hospital stays, poor discharge planning, fragmented care in the community, and lack of options for patients with a dual diagnosis. The Schizophrenia Patient Outcomes Research Team (PORT) guidelines, for example, outlined the type of multimodal treatment necessary to increase chances of full recovery. Most patients with schizophrenia do not receive the kind of care outlined in the PORT recommendations. Solutions to these challenges will arise not from clinicians, but from policy makers."
Children went to school and lost their lives, families went to a movie theater and died, a man was walking down the street was shot and killed, service men and women return from war so traumatized they choose to take their own lives. At the core, all related to mental health. How many more lives must be lost? Should the economic freedom for insurance companies to make excessive profits and the right to bear arms be allowed to strip us from the basic American freedom of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Those who lost their lives in senseless shootings were not afforded this basic American freedom so that others could make larger profits and have the right to bear arms. So my question is, do those rights supersede the right to live?