Mental illness urgent challenge

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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