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February 13, 2013

Greg Kesich: Newtown calls for different thinking on mental illness

Were there 26, 27 or 28? So many details of the Newtown mass murder have been burned into our memories, but the number of victims remains elusive.

There were 20 first-graders. We all know that. We cried when we saw their school pictures on television. Then there were the six adults who put their bodies between the children and a killer. That made some of us proud.

But then there are the other two, Adam Lanza, who ended the day's violence by shooting himself, and his mother Nancy, who was killed in her bed, making her the first to die. Do they count?

They usually don't make the list. If Nancy Lanza hadn't made her guns available and Adam Lanza hadn't pulled the trigger, those children and their teachers would be back at school today and most of us would have never heard of Sandy Hook Elementary.

But until we come to grips with what made a mass murderer out of a deeply troubled young man, we will keep building the wall that stops people from getting help and denies families the tools they need to take care of the loved ones that a disease has turned into someone even they can no longer recognize.

If we blame only the Lanzas, there is no blame left for the rest of us.

"Doing something" about mental illness has been an item on the post-Newtown agenda, often listed as an alternative to gun control. In that context it usually means doing a better job of separating the truly dangerous from the simply suffering and locking up the next murderer before he acts. But that is impossible.

The statistics tell us that only a tiny percentage of people with mental illness ever do what Adam Lanza or Jared Loughner or any of the other mass shooters did. They are far more likely to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator of it.

And we also know that major mental illness is a disease that is treatable and the treatment works best when it is detected early. Recovery can be a life-long struggle that requires not only professional care, but support from a community of family and friends.

So what do we do? We deny care by under funding community mental health services and drug treatment. We look down on people who seek help, calling them weak and unreliable. We isolate their families and keep information from them. And when something goes wrong, guess who we blame?

So when we say we need to "do something" about mental illness, the answer shouldn't be looking for ways to lock up the most dangerous sick people we can find. That will only make it less likely that people who need help will try to get it. If we want to "do something," we should change the way we think about mental illness and pay attention to the words we use.

We say that someone "is mentally ill," "is bipolar," "is schizophrenic." But we would never say that someone "is cancer," "is diabetes," "is the flu." We recognize that those conditions are separate from the person who has them.

And when we talk about a cancer survivor, we tend to use words like "strong" and "brave." When it's someone with a mental illness we are much more likely to call them "weak" or "dangerous."

When we hear that someone's child has been hospitalized with a major mental illness, many of us get tongue-tied. We don't offer the same kind of support and sympathy offered to other parents when their children are ill.

"No casseroles," said Creighton Taylor of Falmouth, who is the president of the Portland chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "Our loved ones are sick, they could be hospitalized for 70 days and there are no cards, no phone calls. No one knows what to say. They're afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they say nothing."

It goes beyond social networks. When the person with mental illness is a legal adult, he is protected by privacy laws. He can stop taking his medication, even if that is a dangerous choice. Mental health professionals work for the patient not his family and the doctors are prohibited from providing information against the patient's will. Shut out by the system, shut off from their communities, families often still end up being the most reliable source of care for someone in trouble.

The response to Newtown has rightly looked at the easy availability of guns in our society, but it shouldn't stop there.

We should also make community based services available and stop stigmatizing those who use them.

And we should give families the support information they need to care for someone, especially when it is someone whose illness makes it impossible for them to make good decisions. And when something goes horribly wrong, like it did at Newtown, we should resist the temptation to treat it like any other crime.

We should count the victims. All of them.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: gkesich@pressherald.com





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