The Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy has rightfully shaken the nation. As a country, we are stunned by the deadly and senseless violence and saddened by the loss of innocent lives. We grieve the loss of the students, teachers and staff. We question how this horrific incident could happen and moreover how could we prevent this from happening again.
Politicians and critics are asserting more aggressive gun laws and that sale and manufacturing restrictions are needed to prevent similar situations from occurring. Many wonder why this type of violence continues to occur and argue for more stringent gun laws. Investigative news stories have indicated that the young assailant perhaps suffered from a mental illness. For that reason, I believe our attention should be focused on the mental health issues that surround this case.
A mental health diagnosis has historically carried with it a stigma. No one wants to talk about it but everyone knows it exists. We all know someone (or we are that someone) who is afflicted. Statistics show that approximately 26 percent of the population suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder and about 6 percent suffers from a serious mental condition. To put that percentage in perspective means 1 in 17 people suffers from a serious mental health condition. Many people suffer from multiple diagnoses.
Ignoring the problem
Mental illness is often overlooked even though it accounts for more health disability than any other group of medical illnesses, including heart disease and cancer. Keep in mind, even when someone is suffering from a physical ailment, his mental health is affected yet often ignored. Even though we are surrounded by family, friends, neighbors or coworkers who struggle with a mental disorder, we often do nothing to help, we choose instead to ignore the problem.
As a juvenile court judge, I was privileged to be a member of Gov. John Kasich’s Ohio Interagency on Mental Health and Juvenile Justice. The commission was established to investigate and make recommendations on how to most effectively treat delinquent students who suffer from serious mental health issues in the juvenile justice system. Locally, as juvenile judge, I have seen an increase in mental health related cases. In light of the increase, the court has instituted a mental health specialty docket to intervene and prevent further destructive behavior to them and to the community. Similarly, an increase in mental health cases has occurred statewide. More than half of the Ohio Department of Youth Services male students are on the mental health caseload and almost all of the female students are on the mental health caseload. These statistics mirror Mahoning County’s population.
REALLOCATION OF FUNDS
The Interagency Commission recommended a reallocation of state funds to agencies serving persons with mental health illness. State and community agencies that are mandated to serve youth with serious mental health issues have seen their budgets gutted over the past decade. This has had a crippling effect on providers to adequately intervene and possibly prevent tragedies like Sandy Hook. As a result, those most challenged and at risk are left untreated, commit assaultive offenses, harm victims, and fall into the juvenile justice system.
Families are at a loss as to how and where to seek help. There is a shortage of both outpatient and inpatient psychiatric services available and even less for those with serious emotional disorders. In the ’80s, Woodside Receiving Hospital and similar facilities statewide were closed. Patients were sent home. Some became homeless and are now found on the streets, under bridges, or in empty buildings. Sagamore Hills Hospital, which treated adolescents and teens, was shuttered as well. The families of children struggle with finding help. With nowhere to go and with a litany of charges, the students end up in the juvenile justice system.
More than ever, we need to individually and collectively address the problem. The time for excuses has passed, the time for philosophizing is over, the time for assigning blame is long gone, now is the time to take action. We need to demand that mental health budgets are restored and that mental health issues become a priority.
Financial resources and state budgets need to be directed to serve our mentally ill and their families. Citizens must demand that resources be directed to fund needed mental health services. When our mentally ill are taken care of we all benefit. It is the right thing to do, and we need to do it now.
Judge Teresa Dellick sits on the Mahoning County Juvenile Court bench where she has been involved in innovations such as a Treatment Court, which reflects her belief that mental health and substance abuse are interrelated.