Mental health resources ‘stretched thin’
State and federal lawmakers from Hartford to Washington have responded to the tragic shootings in Newtown with vows to crack down on gun abuse and to work with mental health care providers to prevent future acts of mass violence.
Health professionals in turn have warned against making the assumption that the mentally ill are more prone to violence, and say the mental health care profession lacks the workforce and the resources to handle significant increases in screenings and services.
“I think in Connecticut we have arguably one of the best, if not the best, behavioral health systems,” said Gary M. Steck, CEO of Wellmore Inc., which does business as Wellmore Behavioral Health and is based in Waterbury with clinics in Naugatuck, Torrington, Danbury and Shelton. “But resources are stretched thin.”
In northwestern Connecticut, Steck estimated hundreds, if not thousands, of people would seek out mental health services — people who would not have done so if not for the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
He said the response from health care providers has been admirable in the short term, but that in the long run more is needed.
“What I’ve seen so far is an amazing way that providers have stepped to the plate,” Steck said. “For the long haul, I simply don’t think the system has the capacity. … Workforce is already a huge issue and will continue to be in the decades to come.”
He said it takes a “unique and blessed” person who is willing to work in a public service or nonprofit field such as mental health care. “It is definitely an ongoing concern.”
Steck recently participated in a roundtable discussion on gun violence that was organized by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and Rep. Jim Himes. The discussion, held at Stamford’s Yerwood Community Center, brought together state officials, public safety officials, mental health providers and spiritual leaders to comment on potential changes — legislative and otherwise.
Murphy reiterated his calls for a broader ban on assault weapons and certain types of ammunition and clips, but said that is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Part of addressing gun problems in cities is not just banning certain weapons or imposing background checks or making sure there are mental health resources available for those people who need it, but making sure there are real alternatives to violence,” Murphy said. “That’s a much more complicated conversation.”
State Rep. Gerald Fox, who represents Stamford in the General Assembly, said a bipartisan committee of state legislators is in the process of holding hearings over what can be done to reduce gun violence.
“Our attempt is to fast-track legislation hopefully for late February,” Fox said.
Daniela Giordano, public policy director for the Connecticut chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), highlighted school-based health centers as “extremely efficient and effective” and said more needs to be done to recruit workers to the mental health care field.
Steck said in a subsequent interview that it’s vital that the discussion over gun violence remain a public and open dialogue and warned against reactionary and aggressive measures by government entities.
“Publicly, I’m not sure what’s known about the shooter (Adam Lanza) but there’s a lot of seemingly stereotypical and stigmatizing things being said, where there’s an assumption that mentally ill people are making our society more dangerous when in fact they’re far more likely to be victims of violence than to perpetrate violence,” Steck said.
“It could be dangerous if the government moves to react with aggressive measures” that reinforce the stigmatization of a person with mental illness, he said.