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Editorial: Shooting puts spotlight on mental health services

Jan. 10, 2013 @ 11:35 PM

It is not surprising that the recent shootings in Newtown, Conn., have parents on edge about their children's safety in school.

But the less-expected response has been from mothers who fear their child could become the next shooter -- the next Adam Lanza.

Investigators have not revealed much about what motivated the 20-year-old Connecticut man to storm into Sandy Hook Elementary School and kill 20 children and six adults, but many suspect mental illness was a factor in his horrific outburst.

That has been the case with so many of the other recent mass shootings, from Tucson two years ago this week to the Colorado movie theater last summer. For some parents who have struggled to get help for their mentally ill children and teens, such an incident is their worst nightmare.

"I wait for the time that this could be my son," wrote Heather Tillmann of Milwaukee, who was profiled in USA Today this week. Her troubled 9-year-old is now in intensive residential care after threatening siblings and caregivers, but she worries about what happens when the funding runs out.

The economic downturn has meant cutbacks in mental health beds and services in many states, making it more difficult for Tillmann and others to find adequate and affordable care for their loved ones.

"Our national mental health care system is in crisis," according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which gave the system a grade of D in 2009. "States have been working to improve the system, but progress is minimal."

Unfortunately, West Virginia and Kentucky were two of six states to receive "F" grades in that survey. The study looked at a wide range of factors, but too little insurance coverage and too few inpatient beds are high on the list of problems. Those shortcomings are aggravated by inadequate community-based mental health services.

We have seen many of those issues surface locally, as officials have tried to deal with overcrowding at Huntington's Mildred Mitchell Bateman Hospital, one of the state's two psychiatric hospitals.

Even when beds and services are available, seeking treatment for adult family members is not easy. At one time laws probably made it too simple to commit a family member, but the USA Today report noted experts feel that laws now make it too difficult to hospitalize mentally-ill family members against their will.

Finding and preventing the next troubled shooter is more than a daunting task, but it is clear that our states and nation need to do more to help those with mental illnesses and protect society from those who are becoming dangerous.

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