In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, like any tragedy, there are a myriad of questions. How could this happen? What was the perpetrator thinking? What was wrong with him? Could this happen in my community? If children are not safe in school, where are they safe?
There are no concrete answers to ease the pain and confusion of such a horrific event. But in the sea of uncertainty, there is one absolute – if we do not change the way the public looks at the mental health industry and insist on adequate funding for necessary treatment, we will be forced to relive similar acts of violence.
It’s too early to say exactly what was wrong with Adam Lanza. Perhaps we will never have an exact diagnosis. But it is evident this was a young man who needed intervention that sadly he did not get. Many people point to gun control as the answer. If perpetrators don’t have access to weapons, innocent lives will be spared. But that is only one piece of the puzzle. People will always find a way to get guns if they are determined enough. Where we can help is by shoring up awareness and funding for mental health treatment.
KidsPeace, a national nonprofit based in the Lehigh Valley, is an expert on mental illness. For 130 years, our specialty has been treating children and adolescents with a wide range of mental, emotional and behavioral health issues. Our services have expanded with the growing needs of the population we serve. We now operate in 10 states and the District of Columbia. We offer residential treatment, therapeutic foster care, community-based programs and even a psychiatric hospital because of the acuity of illness in some of the kids entrusted to our care. While most people struggling with mental illness are not violent, treatment is still imperative to give them a chance of becoming productive members of society. Our wide array of services and resources, such as TeenCentral.Net, ParentCentral.Net and our Critical Incident Response Team, put our organization in a position to lend a healing hand and raise awareness of mental health concerns.
But for all of these efforts to reach out to those in dire need of our services, we are under incredible pressure to do more with less. In five years, due to diminishing reimbursement and declining placements to right-size county, state and federal coffers, KidsPeace has gone from being a $170 million organization to a $118 million one. Our staff has been slashed from 2,500 employees to about 1,800, and the remaining associates have endured pay freezes and benefit cuts. At a time when more children are in need, we are able to deliver fewer services. As legislators grapple with cost-saving measures in an attempt to avert the “fiscal cliff,” our industry is at risk of being pushed aside. We understand money needs to be saved, but at what cost? For all our hard work, we still touch fewer people than we once did, and if mental health funding is cut again, more young people in need will be overlooked.
We are not alone in this struggle. KidsPeace is merely a microcosm of the pressured mental health industry. It is time for all of society to take a stand, stop being afraid to discuss mental illness and fight for the necessary funding and support to continue to help those in desperate need. We must ensure young people who are at risk are referred to appropriate programs for treatment. We need to continue to bolster programs that combat bullying to prevent someone from feeling so isolated that he could lash out in the community. We need to protect our children from the fallout of future acts of aggression. It is imperative to open the lines of communication now so those who represent us in Washington realize what is at stake if funding continues to be reduced. If we do not invest in mental health today, the costs to our society down the line will be staggering.