Our Opinion: We shortchange mental health services at our peril

Unable to make sense of the senseless — like the Newtown, Conn., massacre — the sensible recourse is working to prevent future tragedies.

People across the nation are mourning the slaughter of 26 people at an elementary school. The gunman, Adam Lanza, began the bloodshed by killing his mother before going to the school, and ended the ordeal by killing himself.

Innocent people die as a result of violent acts every day. What catapults this episode into our collective psyche is the magnitude of the death toll, the inclusion of 20 students among the victims, and the Christmas season.

Struggling to understand the massacre is futile, which is a good sign. An area counselor observed: “If you could understand this, I’d be worried about you.”

Although aberrant, violent behavior may be incomprehensible to someone with a mentally healthy mind, warning signs of mental illness may be apparent.

Identifying, intercepting and treating people with mental illnesses, sadly, continues to encounter obstacles.

First, although society has made strides in understanding and tolerance, a stigma remains attached to mental illness. Differentiating mental health from mental illness is not as clear cut as diagnosing heart disease, cancer or a broken bone.

Despite all the public discussion about health care, little attention has been focused on mental health issues. And organizations promoting mental health do not enjoy the higher profiles and fundraising success of other health associations.

The lack of visibility leads to the second obstacle, which is a profound lack of general public knowledge about mental health. Is a family member or friend just having an off day or severely depressed, sullen or suicidal, moody or prone to violence?

These distinctions are difficult to decipher, even for professionals. An ability to make a correct diagnosis is complicated further when patients deny or refuse to disclose their mental states.

Which brings us to a third obstacle — accessibility to mental health resources and a dearth of available professionals.

Compare the number of patient beds in the community to inpatient mental health facilities. Compare the number of mental health professionals with the volume of physicians in other medical fields.

How many people who desire to see a mental health counselor would do so if they were not deterred by the stigma, the cost or an inability to be seen promptly?

We understand increased attention to mental health services will come with a cost. In addition, no single — and no short-term — initiative will eliminate madness and massacres.

But we, as a society, can begin by acknowledging the need to focus on mental health and to make resources more available, affordable and accessible.

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