In the course of the contentious debate leading up to the state’s enactment of tough new gun laws earlier this year, gun advocates argued that gun violence is a mental health problem, not a gun control problem. State lawmakers, with the support and encouragement of Governor Dannel P. Malloy, concluded that it wasn’t really an either/or proposition and passed legislation that called for both gun control and mental health initiatives. On Monday, the legislature’s Committee on Children addressed the second half of that equation and announced a proposal aimed at making it easier for families to secure mental health services for children.
The measure had some persuasive backers from Newtown, who traveled to Hartford for the announcement. Nelba Marquez-Greene, mother of Ana Grace, who was killed 12/14 at the Sandy Hook School, is herself a mental health provider. She explained how she had experienced in “the most personal and tragic way” the many problems in the mental health system she had heard about as a professional. She added, “I hope this is the beginning of a long overdue effort to increase access to mental health treatment in all towns across our state,” reducing “what can be a debilitating stigma that goes along with seeking help.”
Another Newtown mother, Jen Maskel, knows first-hand the frustrations of seeking needed help, noting that finding appropriate treatment for the mental health issues her adolescent son has faced “virtually his entire life” has been an endless struggle. Now, she said, her younger son faces challenges as one of the first graders who escaped Sandy Hook School after witnessing the murder of his classmates. She told a news conference Monday, “The fact that the shooter obviously fell through the cracks of our mental health system does not surprise me a bit after all I’ve been through.”
The proposed bill, now on the Senate’s calendar, seeks to coordinate the state’s fragmented mental health care system and will emphasize prevention and early detection of childhood mental disorders. And by using existing resources, it is one of those rare pieces of legislation that will not require any additional state spending, which dramatically increases its chances of becoming law.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in five American children have a mental health disorder. Apply that ratio to Connecticut, and more than 150,000 children and tens of thousands of families are currently trying to negotiate a complex maze of insurance eligibility requirements, public and private mental health services in addition to the trials imposed by the disorders themselves. They desperately need help.
Better coordination and a rejiggering of the existing mental health system in Connecticut will not remove every hurdle facing families seeking appropriate and effective mental health services for their children. That will require a commitment beyond no-cost reorganization. But it is a good first step.