Roy Exum: Why Tragedies Really Happen

Wednesday, January 9, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

When Heather Tillman’s son was seven years old he tried to stab his babysitter with a screwdriver. He had already been arrested for stabbing a teacher with a pencil. When he was eight he squeezed the family’s pet hamster to death in his fist and, as he later played with the animal’s dead body, he freely admitted he wanted to watch the hamster die.

Today the child, age 9, is in a state-funded mental health facility in Wisconsin and his intensive-care treatment costs $13,000 a month. That’s the only way his mother knows her child won’t kill someone, especially his five-year-old brother who he has already attacked several times. When Heather heard about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Massachusetts, just imagine what went through her mind.

She knows the shooter could one day be her son.

In a fabulous story in Tuesday’s editions of USA Today, writer Liz Szabo wrote that with the nation’s mental health system already failing us, millions of Americans are suffering in silence and the acts of madmen at Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora and Newtown may be just a start to a chilling occurrence. It has been said there is a “mass murder,” where two or more die, in the United States every two weeks.

Experts believe that, in a given year, one in every four Americans suffer from a mental health problem. Of those 60 million people, one in three who have “severe” problems never get help and the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that one in five children in the United States have “diagnosable mental illness issues.”

No wonder gun control is what the politicians want to talk about. Mental illness, which can include anything from mild depression to severe schizophrenia, is obviously rampant in the United States but our nation has cut $4.35 billion from state budgets in the last five years. That is not due to high success rates but instead a cold shoulder at the budget table.

The old rag is “Guns don’t kill people, people do” but until Americans face the fact our nation just received a grade of “D” on its delivery of mental health care, there are going to be people who push a total stranger into a zooming train in a subway and who dye their hair orange before they step into a dark movie theater and mow down stunned viewers. The guns they use are mere tools for their rage.

With one out of five children in need of help, it is easy to see how many get neither the right diagnosis nor the care their disease demands. Leisl Stoufer, identified in the USA Today article as a California mother with a bipolar child, has written President Obama and the governors of every state with the plea, “Mr. President: We have a problem. My son is mentally ill and I am scared.”

“I know we are hanging on a fiscal cliff,” she told the newspaper, “but there is no way a person could pay for the services a child like mine requires.”  Face it, Heather Tillman’s son requires $13,000 in taxpayer money a month and she can’t pay it. Instead, she, just like every other parent of a child who is emotionally unstable, lives in constant fear the program that cares for these children could one day run out of money. Then what?

The National Alliance on Mental Health believes that six states have woefully inadequate programs. Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, Wyoming and South Dakota are the worst in the country but with the so-called fiscal cliff demanding that many social services be slashed on the federal level, other states may not be able to fund necessary programs – the ones that we don’t like to talk about.

The stigma of mental illness needs to be erased. Veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan have helped to bring Post Traumatic Syndrome and other mental conditions into the light and the gruesome fact that more of our soldiers now die from suicide instead of war injuries has heightened the public’s concern. But we are still far away from accepting mental illness as a disease.

Minnesota’s Lynn Peterson has two sons who are afflicted. One has attempted suicide and is now homeless while the other – not yet 21 – has already pleaded guilty to three assault cases. “If this was cancer or diabetes we would treat it,” she told USA Today. “My son’s doctor said, ‘Look, if this was a broken leg, we could put up the Xray and we could all see it. With bipolar, it is different.’”

So what have we done as a nation? When we cut mental health funding by $4.35 billion, the results are very predicable and, for every mother named in yesterday’s front-page story, there are thousands more who want to tell the President that, yes, they are scared too. C’mon, voting to allow teachers to carry guns or asking for strict licensing laws is mundane when compared to the real problem behind tragic shootings.

You’ve got to be crazy not to realize America’s blight in mental health is closer to the point and that senseless tragedies will continue until we address the real reasons behind them. It is so very obvious to us all but if we don’t even talk about the 60 million who now suffer from mental problems, how are we supposed to cope when the next national tragedy rears its head?

Most mental problems are a disease that can be treated and, if not cured, can still be suppressed. The time has come for us to actually help those who are troubled rather than just gather their guns. Not only does it make more sense, good people’s lives could be salvaged rather than slaughtered. That is where we need to focus our efforts – on people.

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