By Moe Keller
The staff and board of directors of Mental Health America of Colorado (MHAC) send our most profound condolences to those who lost their loved ones in the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn. No words can justly describe the loss they have suffered.
We can never know what was happening in the mind of the young man who committed the shooting in Newtown. What we can and must do is remember that our collective response to atrocities like these defines us.
At MHAC we believe the key to keeping our children—and all of us—safe from acts of mass killing involves a multipronged approach that includes prevention, access to services for the treatment of mental health conditions and substance abuse use disorders, and restricting access to guns and ammunition from individuals with the potential to commit violent acts.
Preventing gun violence means requiring a comprehensive and universal background check of both the buyer and seller in every single gun purchase in America. Preventing mass killings also means addressing the prevalence of semi-automatic assault weapons.
In Colorado it is easier to purchase an AR-15 assault rifle, the one used by the shooter in Newtown, than it is to access high-quality, affordable mental health and substance use disorder treatment in the community.
According a 2011 report by AdvancingColorado’s Mental Health Care, one in four Americans and 1.5 million Coloradans are in need of behavioral health care.
Categorizing such a large percentage of Americans and Coloradans as dangerous because they have a mental health diagnosis is inaccurate.
“The vast majority of people with psychiatric disorders do not commit violent acts,” said Dr. Richard Friedman, M.D., in an article in the New York Times.
Mental health treatment is essential to this sort of prevention effort. Because treatment works and can help prevent some people from doing harm, however, does not mean we can equate mental health conditions with violence. The reality is that individuals diagnosed with mental health conditions are four times more likely to be victims of violence, according to the World Health Organization.
Further stigmatizing the idea of having a mental health diagnosis discourages people from honestly and openly discussing their mental health and seeking treatment when they need it. We have to transform the way people think about mental health. We have to teach our kids that it is not only all right, but good and brave to talk about their feelings and their thoughts—no matter what they are—with people who want to help them.
It is important to speak using person first language and identify individuals with mental health challenges as people first instead a generic population defined by a health condition. Research demonstrates that two-thirds of individuals who are diagnosed with mental health conditions, including those with more serious conditions, recover. Unfortunately, the vast majority of media attention is focused on those that continue to be challenged by their mental health issues. We have to appreciate and celebrate those who seek help and overcome their challenges.
It is essential that we have the resources to get individuals appropriate and affordable mental health care when and where they need it. Colorado ranks near the bottom on per capita mental health funding. Colorado’s largest provider of psychiatric inpatient services is its Department of Corrections; the next largest is the system of county jails. In order to have the resources we need to practice prevention and early intervention, we need to dramatically change the way we respond to individuals with mental health conditions.
MHAC is thrilled that the governor and the Division of Behavioral Health are making serious and smart investments in mental health. Gov. Hickenlooper has proposed $18.5 million in new funding for mental health systems in Colorado in his 2013 budget. The budget request would expand the capacity of the state’s Division of Behavioral Health, establish a statewide crisis response hotline and crisis centers throughout the state, and expand the use of trauma-informed models of care in Colorado. Our behavioral health system, as we can all see so clearly, should be front and center as we talk about how to create a stronger and safer Colorado, and let us not forget: a more just and equitable Colorado.
If we focus on prevention in the form of investments in mental health, we will see benefits everywhere from our budgets to our street corners. If we intervene early in the lives of our children and teach them to talk about their mental health and reduce the stigma associated with mental health conditions, we will have a healthier and more productive community.
MHAC’s challenge to the Colorado Legislature, to the U.S. Congress, to every elected official and policymaker in this country is to start taking measures today to ensure that the behavioral health needs of all are met and we are responsibly addressing issues that contribute to violence in our community.
Moe Keller is vice president of public policy and strategic initiatives for Mental Health America of Colorado.