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PCS: More mental health resources, funding needed

Thursday, December 20, 2012

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

The head of this area’s mental health agency is hoping something good will come out of the “awful tragedy” at Newtown, Conn., which prompted President Obama to ask his administration to look at ways to improve mental health resources, among other reforms.

“It’s a year-to-year struggle to maintain services ... let alone doing what everyone knows needs to be done,” said Jim Tobin, executive director of Piedmont Community Services. “Very good prevention, very good early intervention services in schools ... and outpatient counseling” are among the mental health services that are needed, he said.

Tobin said he totally endorses the following comments made to USA Today by forensic psychologist Dewey Cornell, director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia:

• There are hundreds of multiple-casualty shootings every year, but people have become so desensitized to the horror that only the incidents with high body counts make the news.

• Mental illness destroys countless lives every day, contributing to domestic violence and child abuse, drug addiction, homelessness and incarceration.

• Investing in mental health care and reducing its stigma could help prevent future tragedies.

• “Mental health has shrunk down to the level of short-term crisis management,” Cornell said. “If we are going to focus on prevention, we can’t think about the gunman in the parking lot and what to do with him. We have to get involved a lot earlier.”

• Schools and communities “have cut their mental health services to the bone,” Cornell said. “We’re paying a price for it as a society.”

Tobin said Cornell’s comments about shrinkage of funds for mental health services “is totally dead on, totally accurate.”

For example, part of Piedmont Community Services’ and Virginia’s funding for mental health comes from federal block grants. Such funding has not increased in at least a decade, but because of inflation, real buying power has eroded, Tobin said.

If Obama were to champion more funding for mental health, it would be “a wonderful thing,” Tobin said.

He said that “since 1970 in Virginia in particular, and in the United States in general, there has been a gradual and continuing process of moving away” from hospital-based mental health services to community-based services. If there is a parallel building up of community-based services at the same time, that can be a positive thing, Tobin said.

But that doesn’t always happen.

Virginia generally has moved away from outpatient counseling and substituted short-term and crisis services, Tobin said, adding that’s “largely financial driven.”

“That guarantees some people who need ongoing counseling are not going to get it,” he said. When people don’t get what they need, it impacts communities — emergency rooms, law enforcement and homelessness, Tobin said.

Tobin also said he feels news media did a disservice in making too strong a connection between the shootings at Newtown and mental disorder or mental illness.

“People with mental illness are more likely to be victims, not perpetrators. Apparently this guy (the Newtown shooter) had a developmental delay, which is entirely different than a mental disorder or mental illness,” Tobin said. “There is zero connection of Asperger’s (syndrome) to violence.”

News reports have said Newtown shooter Adam Lanza had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, a mild form of autism often characterized by social awkwardness.

Tobin said that when a tragedy happens, “people search for an explanation: How in the world could this unimaginable thing happen?”

“It’s a great disservice in superficially assigning (the reason for the Newtown shootings) to mental disorder,” which was incorrect, Tobin said. And “it doesn’t explain anything. It increases the stigma against people who do struggle with a true mental illness, and it keeps us from searching for the truth of something totally baffling as to how somebody could do this.”

Cornell is one of the authors of a position statement titled “A Call for More Effective Prevention of Violence” in response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. The statement was endorsed by more than 100 organizations and more than 200 prevention scholars and practitioners.

It says: “In summary, we ask for a renewed nationwide effort to address the problem of mass shootings that have occurred repeatedly in our schools and communities. Now is the time for our political leaders to take meaningful action to address the need for improved mental health services and protection from gun violence.

“At the same time, concerned citizens in every community should engage in comprehensive planning and coordination to prevent violence in our schools and communities. These plans should include access to mental health services for youth and adults who are showing signs of psychological distress, including depression, anxiety, withdrawal, anger, and aggression as well as assistance for the families that support them. The bottom line is that we must all work together toward the common goal of keeping our schools and communities safe.”


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