Mental illness urgent challenge

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Dr. Hank Schwartz
Dr. Hank Schwartz

A few years ago a teenager in a Cleveland suburb walked into the high school cafeteria and opened fired with a semi-automatic weapon and killed three students.

He was back in the news this week. He was identified as one of three inmates who escaped from a Lima, Ohio, prison. The youth, now 19, and his companions were caught within a few hours returned to the prison.

What caught my attention came at the end of the story. It said the boy was found to suffer from a psychosis and often experiences hallucinations. When he was sentenced as an adult to three life sentences, he just looked around and laughed. He offered no reason for the killings. Was this kid mentally ill? Very mentally ill? Of course. You can bet he wasn’t being treated.

Yesterday, the paper ran an op.ed. column by Hank Schwartz, a psychiatrist at a Hartford, Conn., center. Schwartz told of a patient who committed suicide years ago and how he remains troubled to this day that he missed any warning signs that might have alerted him to the patient’s intent.

These are not typical stories about people with a mental illness. The person with a mental illness is no more likely than anybody else to kill. It is far more likely that individual with a mental illness will take his or her own life. Even that is not common.

The bigger story is that so many people live with a mental illness. It’s estimated to be about 20 percent of the population. According to surveys, fewer than half of those with the disability get any kind of treatment. More often, it’s not a mental health professional who provides the treatment.

There’s no community with enough mental health professionals to help those in need. Every person in the field I’ve ever interviewed has attested to that. Moreover, Indiana is like a number of states. They cut back mental health services to save tax dollars. The Fort Wayne area’s mental health center, Park Center, recently has had to reduce its staff. The reason? Reduction in state funding.

Meantime, the Carriage House in Fort Wayne, a rehabilitation center for persons with mental illness seems chronically understaffed. I hear regularly about that at our quarterly board meetings. The failure of state government to pick up the funding slack is self-defeating. It’s just such rehabilitation programs as the Carriage House that keeps people out of the hospital, saving the state many dollars in Medicaid funds.

To be sure, people sometimes don’t seek treatment out of fear of being stigmatized. The stigma is powerful. It can put a person’s job or marriage in jeopardy. Or the family doctor won’t get the full story and prescribe an anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication when the patient might also benefit from an anti-psychotic drug. There’s also a condition that experts are familiar with when the patient believes there’s nothing wrong with him or her – everyone else is crazy. That’s rare, though.

National advocacy groups such as NAMI have campaigned for years to combat the stigma of mental illness and improve services. Our family knows first-hand the struggles of those who suffer with a mental illness. Yet we also celebrate their successes. Still, it’s disheartening to know communities can do so much better to make a difference in many more lives.

Mental illness can strike anyone, at any station in life, at any age, any race or ethnic heritage, in any job, of any marital status. It is no respecter of persons. The tragedies aren’t just found in the crime stories.

Am I my brother or sister’s keeper? Even if the person has a mental illness? I think I know the answer.

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In honor of Jim Brady

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Jim Brady (08/02/2006)
Jim Brady (08/02/2006)

I told Jim Brady that every time I wrote an editorial in favor of gun control, it seemed that people in Fort Wayne bought more guns.

Jim just smiled and told me to keep writing the editorials. He died this week at 73, news that touched me with special sadness.

In 1994, he was in Fort Wayne to speak at the annual Golden Pen Banquet. This is the occasion when The Journal Gazette’s editorial board honors readers we thought wrote the best letter to the editor of each month of the past year.

At the time the paper held the event at the private Summit Club downtown. That particular evening the room was filled with letter-writers, spouses or their significant others, as well as the paper’s editorial page staff. This particular we all were especially honored to be in the presence of a man who had become the national symbol of the campaign for rational gun control.

Of the four people a mentally disturbed John Hinckley shot March 30, 1980, including President Reagan, the most seriously wounded was his press secretary Jim Brady. His head injury might easily have cost him his life. A bullet damaged the right side of Jim’s brain. It left him unable to use his left leg and loss of some short-term memory. The injury also impaired his speech.

But I can attest that during his talk that February evening, we understood Jim clearly. As I recall, when he finished speaking from his wheelchair, we gave him a standing ovation.

Even before the near fatal shooting that March, Jim was a person who drew others to him. Nicknamed the “Bear,” he first served Gov. John Connelly’s 1980 presidential campaign as its spokesman. When Connelly lost his bid for the nomination, Reagan’s team enlisted the wise-cracking, amiable Brady to represent the former actor before the legion of journalists.

After the shooting, Jim spent 11 months in a Washington hospital during his long battle to recover his wounds. But he and his wife Sarah soon enlisted in the national gun control lobby, Handgun Control Inc. I was well familiar with the advocacy group. I pestered them so frequently, they knew of the gun control advocacy of The Journal Gazette. But the Bradys’ involvement soon gave the organization greater visibility and national influence.

Handgun Control became the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. By the time Bill Clinton was president, gun control advocates really had something to cheer. Congress passed a bill to require a five-day waiting period for background checks. Jim and Sarah Brady were on hand when the president signed the bill into law. Unfortunately, because of the opposition of the National Rifle Association and the pro-gun lobby, the law didn’t apply to gun shows or to private gun sales. The loopholes remain to this day.

Nevertheless, researchers say that the law, now known as the Brady law, has prevented more than 2 million gun purchases. Who knows how many gun deaths the law prevented? Few Americans can claim doing so much good for so many people.

So years after that terrible spring day in 1981, the fight for rational gun policy goes on. We still kill more people with guns than any country. That’s about 30,000 a year. So many homicides. So many suicides. Research has long established that guns haven’t bought people safety.

But all of us who have joined the cause for rational gun policy will always remember our most courageous ally and friend, Jim Brady.

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Field of dreams

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2012 Live Arm Champs - Dick's in Foster Park
2012 Live Arm Champs – Dick’s in Foster Park

When I jogged past the Foster Park ball fields yesterday, I guessed it would be too wet for the kids to play today.

Sure enough this morning, one of the Wildcat League coaches was standing on the corner to give the word to the parents driving by. No ball today. I imagine he was letting the mom or dad know that the coaches would have the diamond ready tomorrow, July 4.

I often stop at one of the three fields during my morning run to watch the kids. I love to hear the “batter, batter, batter” chatter from the infield as some tyke with a helmet as big as he is steps to the plate. I marvel at how quickly even kids of eight or nine pick up the routines of America’s pastime. They pound a fist their gloves. They search the sky for the pop ball just past second base as the hitter dashes for first. Are they born just knowing which direction to run or what it means to tap a base-runner with the ball?

In Little League, in the late 1940s, I was the pitcher for the Schatz Motors Little League team in Defiance, Ohio. Larry Pelok was my catcher, who later would go on to be a surgeon in Detroit.

A few years ago, a guy had never met came up to me at the Defiance, Ohio, public library. I was signing the memoir of my years as a journalist for the Fort Wayne, Indiana, paper. This stranger wanted to swap my book for a black-bound volume. The man’s dad had been a Little League organizer when I was a kid. He had compiled newspaper clippings that recorded the stats of each ball game over several years.

I gladly made the swap. And what a treat it was to read the record of my sports career. To my amazement, the record shows, I pitched a few winning games. That easily beat my later career. As a teenager, I pitched for one of the high schools I attended. It was a role noteworthy only for my habit of throwing the ball over the backstop.

When my son John played Little League in Fort Wayne, I was one of the coaches. One year we were assigned to the Pizza King team. Another year it was the Barber Shop team. That bunch of kids went the season undefeated. I imagine John recalls more than I do about those happy summers. But I do look back with pride at being a part of such an important time in his childhood and that of his teammates.

We are a such a country of team sports. In school, we choose up sides to play Red Rover and run relay foot races. When I was in first grade one fall, the neighborhood guys divided into teams for a scrimmage with the football. No helmets, no padding. (That’s how neighbor and best friend Davy Morehouse ended up with a broken collar bone.)

We can learn so much in sports about getting along with others. We learn about playing by the rules or get yelled at when we get caught trying to cheat. When our games are organized such as in Little League or Wildcat, we accept the decisions of the umpire – the judge – even when we think he or she is wrong.

“It was a strike,” we’re just sure. “He was out,” we’ll believe the rest of the week. No, the judge’s decision stands. No wonder that in senior government class studying the federal courts seems so familiar.

This workshop in democracy runs all year. Every American takes his or her turn one time or another at the game. It’s there we can acquire the values of democracy. It’s there we can
look past differences in background, in ethnicity, in race and gender. It’s in sports, organized or not, we learn about winning. And, just as important, we learn about losing.

So these days I find it hard not to stop and watch the kids at the ball fields. A few of them likely will end up playing ball in high school or college. Then there’s that rare player who will turn pro someday. It’s just hard to say what will become of a nine-year-old third baseman.

But every child who plays will be a better person and, I trust, a better American.

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