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There’s never been a better time to talk about mental health care

Updated: January 24, 2013 6:20AM

In an interview with CBS Chicago, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart told reporters that the recent closure of mental health facilities “is harming people with mental illnesses who should be patients instead of inmates, and the victims of their crimes that could have been prevented.” With the recent shooting sprees, everyone’s attention has immediately turned to gun control. Some argue for tighter restrictions, and others argue to allow citizens to conceal carry. I have a unique view on the subject.

It doesn’t matter. Attempting to control violent, senseless killings by enacting more gun laws is like trying to prevent drunken driving by controlling the sale of cars. Anyone who makes detailed plans to gun down a group of defenseless strangers obviously has a mental illness. This should be our focus.

Across the United States, state public mental health budgets have been slashed at least $4.35 billion from 2009 to 2012, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. The Huffington Post writes, “29 states reported they’ve had to close more than 3,200 inpatient beds for mentally ill people over the last four years.”

Frighteningly, just months after the Northern Illinois University shootings in DeKalb, Kishwaukee Hospital — the hospital that serves the DeKalb area — closed its inpatient psychiatric care unit. Mentally ill citizens have increasingly fewer and fewer resources and attention than ever in recent history. As an RN of 20 years, I have watched as people needing this vital care slip between the cracks of our social safety net and end up using the Emergency Department for their mental health care needs — a place ill-designed to assist in this matter. They come to us to refill their psychiatric medications, they come to us when they feel out of control with anxiety and panic attacks, and they come to us when they become suicidal. All they receive is either a prescription with no real psychiatric care or a six-to-24-hour wait in the crowded, noisy ER while social services attempts to find them placement in the packed inpatient psychiatric units.

What’s worse is many more end up in the penal system, where they receive no appropriate treatment; and each costs taxpayers between $20,000 and $50,000 a year, depending on the state.

The mentally ill are treated as less than human by their more stable counterparts. There has always been a stigma associated with this illness, and now the government has turned its back on them — and we are all, as a country, paying for that slight. Dozens of mass shootings have marred our countryside, causing untold grief and fear. When will we wake up and realize mental health care funding affects us all?

It’s time to stop looking at these shootings as a cry for gun control and see them as you would accidents caused by drunken drivers. Laws that restrict everyone’s use of a vehicle and/or ability to obtain a driver’s license will not stop drunken drivers from killing innocent people. However, helping them with their substance abuse problems will.

The free market may not see the value in taking care of our mentally/emotionally ill neighbors, but I’m sure everyone can agree it is worth funding programs that would prevent the senseless violence that took the lives of 20 first-graders. As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Let’s get to the source of the problem, which is the mental state of the shooters, not the weapons they wield.

Tara Scharlau is a Maple Park resident.

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