It’s the time of the year when news organizations broadcast and publish lists from 2012. The July movie shooting in Aurora, Colorado, that left twelve dead and 58 wounded, and the December killings at the Sandy Hook Elementary school that claimed the lives 20 children and six adults, are on every Top Ten 2012 Story List.
On NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, President Barack Obama promised to put his “full weight” behind legislation aimed at preventing gun violence. One of his top priorities, he said, will be pushing for increased background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity bullet magazines.
“It is not enough for us to say, `This is too hard so we’re not going to try,’” Obama said.
Sadly, there was little mention on the news show about the need for meaningful mental health reform. A cynic might conclude that the only change that seems in the works is further stigmatizing of persons with mental illness by targeting them in background checks.
After the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 dead and 17 wounded, the Virginia state legislature and governor promised reforms. Legislation was passed that loosened involuntary commitment laws and $42 million in new spending over a two-year period for innovative mental health programs was approved.
A year after approving that $42 million increase, the state legislature and governor cut $50 million from the Virginia mental health budget. A statewide study later showed that the loosening of involuntary commitment laws had virtually no impact, in part, because those responsible for administering the new standard either ignored it or didn’t enforce it because of a lack of community based services.
Is what happened in Virginia prologue?
The President has asked Vice President Joe Biden to develop recommendations to prevent future Sandy Hook tragedies. Will Biden investigate the need for mental health reforms? If so, he will not be the first. In July 2003, President George Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health published its recommendations for “transforming mental health care” in America. While the report did much to encourage the idea of “recovery,” there was no serious effort in Congress to enact the commission’s recommendations.
People are dying because of our broken system. Our jails and prisons have become our new mental asylums. Homeless men and women, who are psychotic, roam our streets tortured by their own thoughts.
My thirty-four years as a reporter in Washington D.C. have made me cynical about our elected leaders’ interest and desire to fix our system. Yet, I enter 2013 with hope.
Since publication of my book, CRAZY, in 2006, I have visited 46 states and toured more than 100 treatment programs. In every community that I have visited, I have met individuals who are working hard to make a difference. These advocates are not famous. You did not see them on any news shows offering their opinions about Sandy Hook. They are not paid or trained mental health professionals.
In my community, there is Trudy Harsh, who started the Brain Foundation. Betsy Greer and Dotti McGee have spent years promoting better mental health services here. My friend, Bob Cluck, lost his son to mental illness earlier this year. Yet, he still finds the courage to speak to Crisis Intervention Team classes at our local police department. In South Carolina, Rebecca Schaper and Kyle Tekiela have produced a powerful documentary, A Sister’s Call. In Florida, Ron and Lin Wilensky founded Dave’s House. The Wilensky’s goal is to open 20 houses for persons with mental illnesses by 2020. In California Muffy Walker launched the International Bipolar Foundation and my good friend, Carla Jacobs, has spent decades fighting for better services.
The list of advocates is a long one. Want more? Graham Champion in Montgomery, Alabama; Terri and Bart Wasilenko in Auburn, New York; Clarice Raichel in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Most of these advocates didn’t choose mental illness. Someone whom they loved got sick and they responded. These are the people who give me hope. They are the ones who will bring about change. It will happen, not because of some well-meaning federal commission that produces yet another report. It will happen because they will make it happen.
My goal for 2013 is a simple one. We need to hold President Obama to his own words when it comes to mental health. “It is not enough for us to say, `This is too hard so we’re not going to try.”