On Friday, Dec. 14, a desperately disturbed young man named Adam Lanza entered our lives as he murdered 20 children and seven adults. Without recalling the horrific details of that day, things can never be the same for us, nor should they.
As a clearer picture began to emerge, my strongest reaction, after the shock and concern for the children and families of Newtown, was to ask why in the world didn’t Adam Lanza get the attention and help he needed?
I serve on the Board of Alexander Youth Network, an organization that helps children with emotional and behavioral problems.
Because of Newtown, it seems that we are finally going to talk seriously about the causes of this tragedy and the too many that have occurred in our communities and schools in recent years. That will be a good thing – if it is done seriously and comprehensively.
It was predictable that the gun-control advocates would rise up immediately, and I’ll be the first to agree that general access to and ownership of certain types of firearms is a problem, and it needs to be addressed.
But mental health and our failed mental health system is the real and first issue, and though our elected leaders have said “we need to talk about that,” they aren’t yet saying what needs to be said.
Mental health is the most widespread, most misunderstood, and most under funded issue in our country. The effects of this are now at epidemic proportions. A report released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that 20 percent of American adults (nearly 46 million) reported some form of mental illness in 2010. And fewer than 4 in 10 of that group said they got treatment. Nearly 27 million adults needed help but got none.
According to the Children’s Defense Fund there are 2,277,967 children living here in North Carolina. We know that one in five of these children, almost half a million kids, suffer some form of emotional or behavioral problem. One in 10 of these kids, nearly 228,000, need professional treatment.
It is estimated that two-thirds of the children who need it will not get any treatment, not because the treatment doesn’t exist and not because it doesn’t work. We know well how to diagnose and help these kids. I see it every day at Alexander Youth Network and our affiliates.
I have talked with the kids we serve. They are brave and tough and lucky to be here. They live a daily nightmare of desperation and behavioral issues, and then they have to fight a tortured bureaucratic system to find help.
All across our state we have organizations and agencies which, like Alexander, exist to provide treatment to kids who so desperately need it. We have plenty of know-how and ability. What we don’t have is proper funding and political will.
Alexander Youth Network served 7,000 children last year, a 29 percent increase over the year before. Over the last three years state funding for that treatment has been cut by 10 percent.
Our elected officials continue to strangle the mental health system in this country, to play political games with the funding and management of the mental health care system in North Carolina.
I fear their games are making more Adam Lanzas more likely, rather than less.
We need to look at the entire continuum of issues surrounding this horrific event and the too many others like it – from a glorification of mind-numbing violence in the media and video games, to a general coarsening of society, to an increasing political climate of “no compromise,” to the proper access to certain types of weapons, to the deplorable and frightening condition of our national and state mental health care system.
But it will take more than simply saying “we need to talk about it” to make mental health a real issue.