Shootings shine light on state of mental health

2012-12-18T23:15:00Z 2012-12-27T21:24:21Z Shootings shine light on state of mental healthVanessa Renderman vanessa.renderman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3244 nwitimes.com

Emerging from the horror of Friday's mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school is a sharpened focus on the state of mental health care in the United States.

People view mental problems differently than medical problems, although insurance companies are starting to provide better benefits for mental care, said Fidel Martinez, a licensed clinical social worker and manager of psychiatric therapists at Franciscan St. Margaret Health hospital in Dyer.

"Mental health treatment is usually the stepchild of the medical system," Martinez said. "In America, there's a rugged individualism ... just pick yourself up by your boot straps. With substance abuse and mental illness, there's this expectation that you can fix yourself, that it's a matter of just willing it to happen. If you try hard enough, you can get less depressed or less bipolar, and that's not the case." 

Martinez, who also is a licensed clinical addictions counselor and certified employee assistance professional, said the Connecticut shooting may further stigmatize those with mental illness, to some degree.

"It gives the public the perception that mental illness and violence are linked," he said.

Studies show people with a mental illness have the same or lower likelihood of being violent as nondiagnosed people, he said.

The shooting has the nation talking more about mental illness.

"Any time it's brought to light, there's an opportunity for dialogue, hopefully in a positive and not a destructive manner," Martinez said.

But mental programs often are among the first axed when it comes to cutting costs, said Dr. Glen Wurglitz, director of Behavioral Health Services at St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago.

Mental health care funding is deficient and resources can be tough to find, especially for children, he said.

Wurglitz, a doctor of clinical psychology, said it is important for the public to know that everything can be treated. 

Medical and psychotherapeutic treatments are available. The problem is not in identifying mental illness, it's in the lack of consistency in following through with a treatment plan, Wurglitz said.

Gary Seacrest, a licensed mental health counselor who serves as director of admissions and emergency services at Porter Starke Services, said mental health resources are available, and people are using them.

"There's been a definite increase in people reaching out for services in the past decade," he said.

More people admit to needing counseling, whether as individuals, couples or families, he said.

"Mental health has come a long way in reducing stigma," Seacrest said.

Signs that a child may be suffering from mental illness include a lack of attachment to others, a lack of remorse in harming living things, psychotic tendencies, unwarranted hostility, preoccupation with death and any major change in behavior, Seacrest said.

The first step is to sit with the child and talk about his or her behavior, with open dialogue. The next step is to meet with a primary care physician who might refer the child to a mental health care provider, Seacrest said.

Wurglitz said the lesson to take away from the Connecticut killings is to live mindfully, to live well in the moment.

"The reality is all of us are one breath away from not being here," he said.

People should make one-on-one connections, looking others in the eye, not just via a computer or phone.

"When we care about people, I think they should know about it," he said.

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