Better mental health care may avert future tragedies

The tragedy in Connecticut on Dec. 14 doesn’t just bring to the forefront the very obvious need for tighter controls on who can obtain guns, it also makes brutally obvious the lack of mental health services available.

As a social worker, I spent 20 years working in mental health outreach services. At that time, there were safeguards in place to assist persons with mental illness not only obtain needed services, but to retain them through a system of case managers in the community. While these services still exist, they have been curtailed by budget cuts and stringent regulation.

Now, as a registered nurse, I see a large number of untreated mentally ill individuals who come in for medical treatment, many of whom could benefit from the safety nets that had initially been put in place to decrease the impact of mass deinstitutionalization.

Our society tends to view the mentally ill as a “throwaway” population, not worthy of our time and resources. Many still blame the victims of these severe psychiatric disorders, as though they’re responsible for the illness that plagues them. That’s akin to blaming an accident victim for the injury. And, while we hear a great deal about those who commit heinous crimes, we tend to forget that the vast majority of people with psychiatric disorders aren’t dangerous at all. They’re just in need of assistance.

Perhaps if those in power could re-evaluate their priorities, some future tragedies could be averted.

Susan Gibbons, M.S., R.N.