It’s Time to talk about Mental Health in America

With debates on gun control raging throughout the country, there is one aspect of the recent Newtown shooting that remains largely glossed over: the state of mental health care in our nation. To paraphrase a friend of mine: it’s easy to imagine a person snapping, like in the case of abuse or a person walking in on a spouse in the midst of an affair, and killing one or two people. But to deliberately kill 27 innocent people, especially children, is psychopathy.

In the wake of Newtown, we still do not have a clear answer as to Adam Lanza’s motives, but one thing is for certain: he had something wrong mentally. Some have jumped to his possible Aspergers Syndrome as a reason. Not to get sidetracked from my main point, but having Aspergers does not necessarily make someone a cold-blooded killer. In fact, as Peter Bell, executive vice president of programs and services for Autism Speaks, notes “Autism did not cause this horrific event […] Trying to make it seem like autism or Asperger’s contributed to this is harmful and irresponsible.” So to blame the shooting on Aspergers is an all-too-easy solution that doesn’t take into account the wider issue of mental health.

Access to mental health care is something that needs to be discussed considering that according to the Washington Post, in 2010 “the country had 156,300 mental health counselors. Access to mental health professionals is worse than for other types of doctors: 89.3 million Americans live in federally-designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas, compared to 55.3 million Americans living in similarly-designated primary-care shortage areas and 44.6 million in dental health shortage areas” and “mental health care is pricey, with 45 percent of the untreated citing cost as a barrier.”

There are definitely other factors that prevent treatment, though, and chief among them is shame. Many people will go to a doctor when they are sick, but to see a therapist or psychologist can make them feel weak or ashamed. That stigma has lessened over the last few decades, but it’s still there.

Would access to proper mental health care have helped Adam Lanza and prevented the Newtown shooting? Of course there is no way to say “yes” but that doesn’t mean that it’s an automatic “no” either; the plain answer is that we don’t know for sure since who’s to say that he would have sought treatment? But with 45% of people who who are untreated citing cost as a barrier, that does raise a the larger question about treatment and who is getting it even though not everyone who needs treatment for mental health issues is violent. And who’s to say that he wouldn’t have been too ashamed to seek help even if cost wasn’t an issue?

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a clear-cut answer to the problem. There is certainly a financial issue involved in why people don’t get treatment when it is needed, but throwing money at the problem won’t be enough to solve it. What we need is a larger discussion in this country about mental health that hasn’t happened yet, one that addresses not only financial issues but underlying cultural issues as well so that people who are in need of treatment can get the help that they need.

Matt Saye

Matt Saye

Matt Saye is an English professor at University of Mississippi. He covers political and social issues.
Matt Saye