As the discussion of gun violence ratcheted up in the wake of the December 14 Sandy Hook School shootings, the talking points in that debate highlighted two components of the crime that serve as a handy indicators of the pro-gun or anti-gun disposition of any given argument: the psychological state of mass murderers and the mechanical means of their mayhem. Gun rights advocates believe it is a mental health problem. Gun control advocates believe it is a matter of limiting access to the most efficiently lethal guns.
It is the nature of public debates to morph even the most complex and nuanced of questions into a dualistic duel — the paralyzing end result of too many deliberations in this time of political polarization. When it comes to regulating the use of guns, we hope the trauma of our town will encourage a different, more thoughtful, approach from our elected representatives both in Hartford and Washington, D.C. Fortunately, strengthening the foundations of mental health in our society is not entirely dependent on the uncertain outcomes of the modern legislative process.
Assessing and perhaps forecasting the mental stability of potential sociopaths — as daunting as that may seem — appears to be the urgent catalyst for the issue’s new prominence. However, as a community, we have become keenly aware of how fragile mental health is in the face of overwhelming stress and anguish, even for people not trapped in their social isolation and delusions. In fact, some of Newtown’s most upstanding and responsible citizens, its first responders, are now struggling with what they saw on that fateful day and face the pains of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the months and years to come. Mental health, as it turns out, is not a political issue, it is a personal issue.
It is important for the state legislature to act, as it appears to be doing, on an expansion of workers’ compensation to adequately address PTSD in the state’s first responders. And it is welcome news that President Obama last week ordered the completion of regulations for the 2008 mental health parity law, which should make it easier for people to get insurance coverage for mental health treatment. Yet it is equally important for individual communities to support the ongoing mental health programs routinely offered by local and regional agencies. Newtown Youth & Family Services, for example, has stepped up its counseling efforts in the community in recent weeks in addition to its regular schedule of programs and services for Newtown. While it may be eligible for some state and federal grants, it still relies heavily on local support from Newtown taxpayers and community fundraisers.
Committing support and resources to mental health programs may be a tough sell for bottom-line types looking for concrete evidence of “bang for the buck.” But how does one quantify mental illnesses avoided, families not shattered, or crimes not committed, especially in a field of service that requires confidentiality? Perhaps, as we demand a more thoughtful approach of our elected representatives as they wrestle with the issue of gun control, we ourselves can bring a more thoughtful approach to how we assess the dividends of our community’s investments in mental health.