Asperger's syndrome. Personality disorder. Mental illness. All of these phrases and more have been bandied about in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that took the lives of 28 people, including 20 children, and the perpetrator, 20-year-old Adam Lanza.
Although no definitive information has surfaced to say whether Lanza suffered from a mental illness or sought mental health treatment, his rampage has still lit a fire under the national conversation about mental illness and mental health care options.
"In one word, the state of mental services is deplorable, and for children it is even worse," said Kimberly Dixon, crisis director for Westbrook Health Services in Parkersburg. Dixon, a clinical social worker who has been in the field of mental health services for more than 20 years, said one of the biggest problems is that the public perceives mental illness as different than physical illness, something that needs to change.
"When women were dying of breast cancer, we started that conversation. Everyone talks about (breasts) now, but no one talks about these serious mental illnesses," she said.
Sadly, it takes occurrences of mass violence to start conversations about mental illness, and usually those conversations get squelched before any real progress is made, said Dixon.
Additionally, tragedies like the one in Newtown, Conn., fuel an untrue perception that people with mental health issues are more violent than the general population, said Miriam Keith, Washington County Behavioral Health Board's consumer support coordinator.
Call for help
- Washington County Bounty Behavioral Health Board: 374-6990
- Westbrook Health Services 24-hour crisis line: (304) 485-1725 (inside Wood County, W.Va.) or 1 (800) 579-5844 (outside Wood County, W.Va.)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273-8255
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness: (212) 684-3264.
"Research shows they are more likely to become the victims of crime," pointed out Keith.
Funding is another huge hurdle for those who need mental health services, said David Browne, executive director of the Washington County Behavioral Health Board.
Though state funding has slowly increased over the past 10 years, stipulations on that funding have actually meant that the funds can serve a smaller pool of people.
The state has earmarked more funding for Medicaid patients, but at the same time made it virtually impossible for those ineligible for Medicaid to seek counseling or other forms of mental health services, said Browne.
"A lot of people who used to be getting services can no longer access those services," he said.
Marietta resident Tonya Winch, 42, agreed that mental health services need to be better funded.
"When you say "mental" health, people automatically say 'I'm not putting money toward that,'" said Winch.
Washington County residents have voted down all four mental health levies that have been put on the ballot since 1998.
"Nobody is willing to pay for mental health services. And people with mental illness don't vote," said Dixon.
However, Dixon said that West Virginia is in slightly better shape because their mental health services receive more state funding and do not rely on levies like Ohio's services do.
"We have lots and lots of lots of free services," she said.
As a result, Ohioans are seeking services in West Virginia, she added.
According to the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities, early detections and preventative services, such as counseling, are just as effective for mental illnesses as they are for physical ailments. In addition, prevention services save money over time by reducing crime, improving school and work attendance, and saving costs associated with child welfare.
"I do think that if we can get into some of the prevention, we can stop a lot of the mental illness from developing into a more serious mental illness," said Browne.
He suggested screening children at the beginning of every school year for things like depression and conduct disorders.
Marietta resident Karen Thompson, 49, volunteered as an aide for the Head Start Program for several years, and noted that once children left Head Start, any mental or behavioral issues they had were no longer addressed.
"If that special need isn't taken care of by the time they are in kindergarten, then it is just ignored," said Thompson.
Our children are falling through the cracks, she said, and a lot more needs to be done in the schools to help them. When there is only a focus on the ones with noticeable behavioral problems or learning disabilities, it singles them out for ridicule and teasing, she added.
That potential for teasing worries Keith.
"I'm fearful that this shooting in Newtown will cause people to tease or to taunt people with autism or mental illnesses," she said.
Although society has come a long way in its understanding and treatment of mental illness, it still has a long way to go to eradicate the lingering stigmas about mental illness, said Keith.