Pauls Valley, OK, Pauls Valley Democrat

January 19, 2011

Mental illness demands health care reform

Mitchel Olszak
CNHI News Service

— Can the shooting tragedy in Arizona be used to create real progress in American society?

And at the same time, can it give Democrats and Republicans something to agree on in terms of health care reform?

In this day and age, when knee-jerk ideologues on the left and right seem to hold so much sway, it’s hard to imagine such possibilities.

But an avenue is open that could allow both parties in Congress and President Obama to declare political victory.

And it would help America at the same time.

I refer to the idea that more needs to be done to identify and treat individuals in this country who have serious mental illness. The Arizona shooting has prompted considerable debate, but there is ample evidence that the young man implicated in the shootings suffered from undiagnosed schizophrenia.

This is a mental illness that’s well known to experts, but little understood by the general public. Those afflicted frequently hear voices in their heads. You may sometimes see them carrying on conversations with themselves. They can display a variety of symptoms, but their behavior tends to make them social outcasts.

Most schizophrenics pose no threat to others and don’t act violently. But there are those — particularly if they develop paranoia or somehow feel threatened — who have the potential to become violent.

The suspect in the Arizona shootings apparently was one such individual. It seems there were obvious warning signs in his words and behavior that showed he suffered from a serious mental illness. But he never received treatment.

In our society, mentally ill people cannot be compelled to receive treatment until they pose a demonstrable threat to themselves or others.

That sounds strange, but it’s based on the fundamental concept of civil liberties. Totalitarian states have a habit of declaring nonconformists insane, then locking them up and drugging them. In some ways, America goes to the opposite extreme.

That’s a real problem when mental illness manifests itself as paranoia. If they’re out to get you, you aren’t about to take their medications.

Along with the legal difficulties of treating the mentally ill is the social stigma. Family members sometimes go into denial. Or they become frustrated with a system that won’t help. As for strangers, the general goal is to avoid the mentally ill, rather than push to get them treatment.

Thus we have a situation in America where the mentally ill frequently suffer with little or no medical aid. The lack of attention they receive is compounded by the lack of funding. Insurance companies, by the way, aren’t exactly rushing to provide coverage for these individuals. It’s not cost effective in a corporate sense.

That’s why government has to get involved, to make sure there is more funding and a greater understanding of mental illness.

Interestingly enough, a bipartisan effort to do so may be taking shape.

Over the weekend, two members of Congress, one Republican and one Democrat, appeared on CNN to discuss this issue. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Grace Napolitano, a California Democrat, talked about better educating the public regarding the warning signs of mental illness and re-examining laws that allow seriously ill, and potentially dangerous, people to go untreated.

Napolitano warned, however, that the nation’s short attention span may deter any action. But she, Murphy and other lawmakers need to push the issue.

For the most part, members of Congress and state legislators are not mental health professionals. What they do have, however, is a public forum and the ability to channel funds to needed areas.

Mental illness is a badly needed area.

Mitchel Olszak writes for the New Castle (Pa.) News. CNHI News Service distributes his column.