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Horrific crimes raise question: Should we expand mental health services?

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Posted: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 12:00 am

The horrific Sandy Hook tragedy has cloaked the community of Newtown, Conn. and our country in grief, and renewed a quest for actions to prevent this from happening again.

When taking into consideration previous tragedies — April 16, 2007 at Virginia Tech (32 killed, 17 wounded by 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho); followed on Jan. 8, 2011 in Tucson, Ariz. (6 killed, 13 wounded by 23-year-old Jared Laughner); and July 20, 2012 in Aurora, Colo. (12 killed, 59 wounded by 24-year-old James E. Holmes) — poster children in their 20s are crying out for help but falling through the cracks when it comes to receiving timely mental health treatment intervention.

At this time, a final diagnosis for 20-year-old Adam Lanza has not been released; however, there are early indications that he displayed mental health issues. I believe that earlier mental health treatment intervention could have changed the outcomes of these tragedies. When a person is mentally ill, they are not evil; it's an illness.

The great majority of people living with a mental illness are not violent; many are the victims of violence, not the perpetrators. Most of the victims refuse to file charges against their attackers. This has been more recently documented via social media showing a mentally ill person being savagely attacked, without provocation, and beaten. Police were able to apprehend the perpetrators thanks to social media.

The brain is not fully developed until the age of 25, and symptoms often show up in 18- to 25-year-olds, many of whom are in college at that time and often do not seek the necessary help due to stigma associated with mental illness.

Mental illness is an illness like any other physical illness. Without early treatment, mental illness will become more severe.

Due to misinformation and the stigma associated with mental illness, and the economic downturn, mental health and substance abuse budgets and mental health research have often been the first services cut by our government.

The brain is very complex, and research is expensive. We will need to find ways to attract private funding via fundraisers as we have for other illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Persons who suffer from very severe untreated mental illness may also have "anosognosia," a condition which makes the person believe they are not ill, and they cannot be persuaded to receive treatment. They often "self-medicate" through substance abuse. Untreated psychosis and substance abuse can lead to violence and incarceration.

Taking into consideration the high cost of mental health treatment in jails/prisons in addition to less effective outcomes, and the human suffering associated with this "revolving door" process, the San Joaquin County Mental Health Board has recently received two presentations (one pro and one con) with respect to Laura's Law, which allows courts to order assisted outpatient treatment for the small segment of the severely mentally ill caught in the "revolving door" process.

The California law is named after Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old woman who worked at the Nevada County mental health clinic in 2001. She and two others were shot to death that year.

This law was going to "sunset" this year, but the state Legislature voted to approve its extension. It is up to each county to adopt and fund this law.

Following the last presentation on this subject, SJC Mental Health Director Vic Singh recommended commencing community focus groups as the next step in the process to arrive at the best solutions for San Joaquin County.

Gertie Kandris is a Woodbridge mental health advocate.

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