by Jennifer Swayne, Staff Attorney – Health Justice Program
On Friday, December 14, 2012, we once again faced unspeakable tragedy as a gunman broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT and opened fire, killing a total of 28 people—20 of whom were children. While many of the initial conversations surrounding this horrible tragedy focused on the ongoing debate about gun control, very few of those conversations focused on mental illness, the stigma surrounding it, and access to mental health care services. Some news sources have reported that the gunman faced mental illness, though it is not clear what, if any, mental health services he and his family may have sought in the past. However, what is certain is that we need to engage in dialogue on mental illness, as there are many individuals who face significant stigma and who are not able to access critical mental health services consistently.
Mental illness knows no race, culture, ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status, age, gender, or religion, yet there is stigma and overwhelming silence surrounding its impact. Many have probably encountered someone with mental illness without even realizing it, especially since about 1 in 4 adults age 18 and over, and about 1 in 5 children age birth to 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives. Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, however, we continue to miss opportunities to help others get the support and assistance they need, especially when those who exhibit signs of mental illness are simply labeled and dismissed as “crazy.” Instead, we are relegated to hindsight assessment when it is much too late to take action.
The mass shooting that happened in Newtown is an extreme, and there is nothing that excuses the actions of the gunman. However, mental illness is much more complex than this extreme case of violence we have witnessed suggests. For instance, people with mental illness face greater risk of becoming the victim of crime rather than being the perpetrator. Therefore, we must be careful not to let a single person’s actions symbolize our collective understanding of how mental illness manifests and operates.
Further, we have a health care system where mental health parity has been lacking, and sadly, quality mental health services remain a luxury reserved for those who have the ability to pay in cash for those services. The result is that those who have no insurance, those who rely on private insurance with limited mental health benefits, and those who rely on public insurance often go without needed mental health services that can help them live full and productive lives. Untreated mental illness can result in homelessness, incarceration, victimization, high burden placed on families and caretakers, and productivity loss, not to mention the financial costs of healthcare expenditures resulting directly from failure to treat mental illness sooner rather than later.
New York State is in the process of redesigning its system of behavioral health services for some of the most vulnerable people in our society—low-income children from birth to age 21 who use public insurance. This is a group that has suffered immensely from lack of adequate mental health services. Under Medicaid, the system of mental health care for children has been overwhelmingly underfunded and the New York State systems that serve children—Department of Health (DOH), Office of Mental Health (OMH), Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), Department of Education (DOE)—and other agencies at the local level, have not coordinated their efforts to serve children, leading to a disjointed system.
It is promising that New York State is engaging in a process to revamp the system of care for our children, but we have to make sure that it is a system that will actually work and result in real change or else children will continue to face dire consequences and suffer from the stigma of mental illness well into adulthood. Children with mental health problems have lower educational achievement, greater involvement with the criminal justice system and fewer stable and long-term placements in the child welfare system than their peers. In attempts to access mental health services, publicly insured children are also more likely to rely on restrictive or costly services such as juvenile detention, residential treatment, emergency rooms, and are more likely to be placed out of their homes in order to obtain critical services, as opposed to being able to readily access outpatient services, especially if they are children of color.
On December 14, NYLPI and the Children’s Defense Fund submitted joint comments (which you can access here) regarding the critical mental health services that children need to New York’s OMH, OASAS, and OCFS. In our comments we:
(1) address the health disparities that impact receipt of mental health care;
(2) list the services that children should receive and who should provide those services;
(3) highlight the importance of cultural and linguistic competency;
(4) discuss the need for early identification and prevention measures such as behavioral health screening; and
(5) stress the need for training and funding so that providers are able to actually provide the appropriate services.
As we can see, mental illness is complex and it is not going away. We must proactively engage in creating a better system of care rather than responding in the aftermath of tragedy. It is vital that we have honest and ongoing conversations about the state of our society, mental illness, stigma, and access to appropriate mental health care services.