Roles of Mental Health And Illness Explored After Newtown Tragedy

Featured Audio

Since the tragedy, people have sought answers as to how someone could commit such a horrific act -- and how further incidents may be prevented. Many blame primarily easy access to guns, but others are making mental illness a focal point of the debate. Speculation has surrounded reports that gunman Adam Lanza had Asperger’s Syndrome, though there’s no tie between Asperger’s and violent behavior.

In fact, there’s no one profile of those who carry out large-scale violence, says Dan Flannery. He’s with the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education, at Case Western Reserve University. Flannery says there are common features though, that can be compounded by mental health issues.

“We know that these are angry, typically young people," says Flannery. "They feel a sense of disenfranchisement, or rejection. Whether that’s rejection from his mother, or fear of getting placed in facility, etc. we know that there’s a fascination with violence and guns. And we know that there are easy access to weapons.”

Meanwhile, some media reports suggest that Lanza was possibly acting out against having been committed by his mother…who was found shot to death in her bedroom. Sound of Ideas guest Kristina Ragosta says trends towards deinstitutionalization -- and a lack of treatment options -- have basically caused the nation’s mental health system to fail those with severe mental illness.

“We’ve emptied the nation’s psychiatric hospitals, gutted state and local mental health programs, turned involuntary treatment into a debate point, instead of using it as a viable option to prevent tragedy and get help for people before these awful, awful things happen.”

Ragosta - Senior Legislative & Policy Counsel at the Treatment Advocacy Center -- says there’s currently a bill that would clarify Ohio’s mental illness commitment law, to help people know when someone could be committed.

Another guest, D.J. Jaffee, also supports greater awareness of mental health issues in preventing violence. But Jaffee - Executive Director of the Mental Illness Policy Organization - argues that the current system is slanted more towards helping the “worried well” – troubled but otherwise largely functioning people – over those suffering severe mental disorders and psychoses, including schizophrenia.

“So what happens is, children who have extreme psychiatric disorders, are discharged from hospitals sicker and quicker to their parents. But because of confidentiality laws, the parents aren’t even allowed to know what the diagnosis is, what the treatments are, or what the next appointment is.”

Jaffee says the most seriously ill need to be prioritized, and the federal government also needs to create an official definition of “serious mental illness” to better match funding for mental health services.

Listeners also had their say. One of them, identified as “Loraine” in Shaker Heights, felt that regular, psychological testing of students in schools could help stave violent outbreaks.

“Y’know, children are referred to a psychologist if there’s a concern from the teacher," said Loraine. "But I think along every grade level we need to do that, so in fact a profile can be developed, and some concerns or red lights, y’know, bells will go off about potential problems.”

Much remains to be learned about last Friday’s violent tragedy in Newtown. But mental health advocates are encouraged that in addition to gun control and school security, their issues too are finally getting more attention.

Support Provided By