Like everyone else, I have been trying to make sense of the horrific tragedy that unfolded in Newtown, Connecticut. While discussing what happened with a colleague of mine who lives in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC, he told me that shortly after the tragedy his neighbors began sending around the names and addresses of people in their community who had exhibited behavior they found to be strange. They said someone should contact the authorities to have them locked up. They might be a threat.
Now the National Rifle Association is calling for a nationwide registry of the mentally ill. Do they really believe all 40 million or more Americans with a mental illness are criminals? Fear and assumptions about mental illness cause people to make brash and sweeping conclusions about all people with mental illness. Even people who usually argue vociferously in support of civil rights and equality suggest that people with mental illness should be rounded up and locked in institutions. The fact that otherwise reasonable people support locking up neighbors who have done nothing wrong as a way to improve mental health services places the civil rights of all Americans in grave danger.
The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary will only be compounded unless we take a reasoned approach toward both responding to this incident and preventing similar incidents in the future. People with mental illness are not all criminals. One in five Americans experienced a mental illness last year. Studies have shown that the majority of people who have mental illnesses are not violent, and the majority of people who are violent do not have a mental illness. Such misconceptions make it less likely that an individual who desperately needs mental health services will come forward to get it. They fear being locked up and thrown away, separated from their loved ones, families, and careers. They fear becoming trapped in an ugly system with an alarming history of abuse and neglect.
For many decades in this country, people with mental illness were isolated, abused, neglected, even killed in institutions where they received no treatment. Those that managed to remain in their communities faced such terrible stigma and stereotyping it was impossible to find adequate housing, a job, or build successful relationships with family, friends and neighbors. The ease with which our national conversation has focused on institutions as the place for mental health services reveals the enduring stigma that comes with having a mental illness continues to exist today.
People with mental illness can recover and many do. Recovery requires services and treatment appropriate for their condition. Because not all mental illnesses are the same, there must be a broad continuum of care options in the community. They should not have to be institutionalized to get them. People with mental illness must be engaged early to maintain stability in community-based settings, so that they have the opportunity to live and thrive, without having to wait until they are in crisis to receive services.
Recent history shows us going in the opposite direction. Around 24% of all state mental health agencies reported making cuts to community-based services last year, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. At the same time, nearly all state mental health agencies report increased demands for their services.
We cannot let budget shortfalls be an excuse for delaying or denying access to care. We cannot let the stigma associated with having a mental illness guide the decisions we make following this awful tragedy. It is a toxic combination and the consequences are too terrible to accept.Curtis L. Decker, Esq.