The Newtown school shooting brought the long-discussed issue of gun control to the forefront of national politics. But that tragedy also raised another concern—how mental illness is regarded across the country.
As part of an ongoing congressional review of the shooting, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a forum Tuesday focusing on severe mental illness and gun violence.
Participants will discuss ways to detect mental illness early; how the treatment for the severely mentally ill has changed over time; the programs and treatments currently being offered; and, where these services are provided— including inpatient settings, health centers, schools, and by the criminal justice system.
They will also discuss what solutions can be successful as well as the barriers individuals and families face when seeking treatment for the severely mentally ill.
Long wait for treatment
Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA), a licensed psychologist, said two of the main issues with mental illness in the U.S. are the time people must wait to get treatment, and the stigma associated with mental illness.
“For severe mental illness, the average person may wait anywhere from 60 to 150 weeks, with an average of 112 weeks, before they actually start getting help,” Murphy said. “There’s many reasons for that—it could be that they don’t have access to trained professionals, they’re not covered by this, they [don’t have] someone nearby, sometimes it may be a family culture that resists getting help for mental illness.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
Shortage of facilities
Another challenge is where to put people while they receive treatment. According to a 2008 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, there were 17 public psychiatric beds available per 100,000 people in 2005 compared to 340 per 100,000 in 1955.
This means that 95 percent of the beds available in 1955 didn’t exist 50 years later.
Murphy said this lack of current policy toward the mentally disabled limits what can be done.
“We don’t have enough capacity for more than 20 percent of those who need it,” he said. “We have to also recognize that in many cases people do need some inpatient hospitalization. Not with the old style that we imagine things to be in the old movies The Snake Pit or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but really modern psychological and psychiatric medicine.”
With this lack of facilities, Murphy said, families with mentally ill children have trouble finding solutions.
“Generally the parents may mention something to the school and the school says, ‘we can’t handle someone like that,’ and then the parents say, ‘well we can’t live in our house like that,” he said. “So then they try to get their child to a hospital, and the hospital says, ‘we don’t have room for this kind of patient, we don’t handle this kind of patient.”
Murphy said the lack of a support system for these types of children also costs more.
“Eventually, [the parents] may be told, ‘if you press charges against your child for hitting you, then we can put them into a juvenile detention facility.’ That’s not a treatment option, as a matter of fact, it’s far more expensive to put a child in jail than get them help.”
The forum will be Tuesday at 10 a.m in the House Office building.