Tuerk Schlesinger, AltaPointe Health CEO, calls for greater focus on mental health funding

It’s official: A generation of young Americans has never known a world without periodic mass shootings that kill innocent people, including children. From the shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School, in which 12 students and one teacher were murdered in 1999, to the recent one in Parkland, Fla., where 14 students and three teachers died at Stoneman Douglas High School, they have raised questions about the treatment of mental illness in our country.

With every horrific act, questions immediately emerge about access to guns and the perpetrator’s mental health. Setting aside the issue of guns themselves, I choose to focus on the subject about which we at AltaPointe Health know considerably more: mental illness and the inadequately funded system attempting to treat the disease.

The conclusion that politicians, news media and members of society often make as they attempt to explain these atrocities is that surely these “shooters” must be mentally ill. And indeed, the unfortunate truth often is that the perpetrators have undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses. Each case is unique and complex, however, and it generally is not clear how these criminal acts could have been prevented.

The larger questions always should be: What do we know, and what can be done about the societal dilemma related to mental illness and preventing these kinds of crimes?

For starters, consider the 2016 report titled “Mass Shootings and Mental Illness, written by two professors of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, N.Y., in which James L. Knoll IV, M.D., and George Annas, M.D., concluded that mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides.

Additionally, we know the mentally ill are more likely than the average person to be the victims of violent crime rather than the perpetrators. Moreover, we know that the stigma of mental illness can keep people away from treatment and that the stigma could be reduced by education about the disease.

We also understand that with appropriate diagnosis, treatment, and compliance with prescribed medications, most people with mental illness can achieve recovery. And, lastly, we know that a greater investment of federal, state and local money to fund mental health services and psychiatric medical education is needed.

As for what can be done, we can start with our elected leaders in Washington. The depressing reality is that after a mass murder and the accompanying flurry of media coverage, little or nothing happens. The difference this time is that there seems to be an urgency to find solutions. Is there hope that positive action will take place, laws will change and funding will increase where it’s most needed?

Congress seems to have a little steam behind it now, pushing it to pass legislation that would take the funding of school security and mental health services more seriously. For example, school systems appear to need help to make campuses more secure; and states could steer grant money to local mental health agencies, which could partner with school systems to place mental health professionals in individual schools.

Society in general, and people living with serious mental illness would benefit greatly.

Altapointe’s job is to provide behavioral healthcare. Our organization – and similar organizations state and nationwide — must pinch pennies and be highly innovative just to be able to deliver that care. We need action at the national level. Our leaders must pay attention to the enormous and never-ending need to provide humane and effective treatment to those who live with mental illness.

You can help by becoming informed and then encouraging your representatives and senators to increase funding and improve the mental health system. By doing so, we may be able to stem the tide of crimes so often attributed to individuals with mental illness.


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