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Maine Mental Health Advocates Weigh in on Newtown Tragedy
12/19/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

The rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut has prompted many politicians and advocates to call for a re-evaluation, not only of the nation's gun control laws, but of mental health care. Today, President Obama tasked Vice President Joe Biden with drafting new gun control and mental health policies by the end of next month. Patty Wight reports on what those who work in the mental health field in Maine are saying in response to the tragedy and what they hope to change.

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First, we have to be clear about what we don't know about the school shooting: We don't know whether Adam Lanza, the man who shot and killed 26 children and teachers, had a mental illness. We don't know if he had a personality disorder. We don't know for sure if he was diagnosed with a form of autism known as Aspergers, despite some media reports.

All of these terms have been used as context for Lanza, and psychiatrist Dr. Marc Kaplan says, at best, they're irrelevant. At worst, they perpetuate stigma.

"I mean what do we know?" he asks. "We know that there was, you know, clearly the highest level of deviant thinking. But the point I want to make is not every act of criminality is indicative of mental illness."

Kaplan is the medical director of Sweetser, a mental and behavioral health care organization in Maine. He says those with Aspergers, and most of those within the vast category of "personality disorders," are not predisposed to violence.

Kaplan says what happened in Newtown is horrific and heartbreaking, but he's not comfortable using it to represent the need for a mental health system tune-up. "That's not, typically, the type of person we're dealing with that presents for treatment in mental health centers," he says.

Kim Moody, the executive director of the Disability Rights Center, an advocacy agency, also says connecting the incident to the mental health system is off the mark.

"Everybody wants to say, 'Oh, this has got to do with mental illness, and if we make the system better, these things won't happen.' I don't believe that," Moody says. "I don't think we're ever going to have a system, a mental health system, that reaches into people's homes and says, 'Oh look - your behavior is a little screwy.' People have to present themselves for treatment."

The type of person who commits mass shootings is so screwed up, Moody says, he's in a different category from mental health altogether. But even though she views it as a separate issue, Moody says the mental health system is the one best equipped to try to prevent something like this in the future. "I think that has to be part of this conversation: How does this intersect with our mental health system?"

Some say the intersection might be through access to preventative care. Carol Carothers is executive director of the Maine branch of NAMI - the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She says many people feel lost when dealing with mental illness.
"So Americans understand what to do if their loved one is having a stroke, because those are signs and symptoms that are recognizable. And the same with heart attacks," Carothers says. "But with mental illness, people are stuck, because until it comes into your life, nobody has talked to you about it, you haven't had any training about it. You just know that your loved one is acting different."

Carothers says she doesn't necessarily think new laws regarding mental health are needed - just using resources more strategically for outreach and education. Kim Moody from the Disability Rights Center agrees - but with such a complicated issue, she says resources need to be directed in many areas.

"It can't just be about the mental health system. It has to be about schools, too. It has to be about bullying, it has to be about childhood trauma," she says.

While strategy is important, Moody say more funding is also needed. Mental health funding in Maine has been stripped away over the past decade, even though Carol Carothers from NAMI says mental illness and substance abuse are the leading cause of death and disability, exceeding even cancer and heart disease.


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