The Mental Health Dilemma

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12670690473_cb2e9ba2f0_hViewers of a West Virginia television station – and soon after, the entire country – stood transfixed as a deadly shooting unfolded on live television. When the dust settled, three were dead, including the shooter, and one was seriously wounded.

A routine day turned to tragedy, and soon the news and social media were filled with speculation about the shooter, Vester Flanagan, who also used the name Bryce Williams.

This shooting and its aftermath were especially grisly because of the video, the images, and the shooter’s use of social media. But these deadly scenes are too commonplace, feel too familiar.

We have become too accustomed to the fear, to the grief, and to the ensuing wall-to-wall coverage. We are drawn to the drama, the anger, and the inevitable calls for fewer guns or more guns depending on your politics. But we have become numb to the finality of this repeated horror and eventually our collective attention is turned to the next big news story.

We can’t just let this keep happening. Where is the outrage? The outreach? Some of these tragic shootings have prompted calls for mental health reform, but, like strengthened gun control, change has been slow to come. Clearly, as a society, we must do a better job of identifying, supporting, and treating those with mental illness.

There must be access to real, meaningful treatment for those with mental illness and mental health issues. Too many land in emergency rooms or jails. Too many end up in treatment facilities for a day or a week. Treatment for mental illness is a long-term proposition. Getting the right mix of medication is an art form, rather than a science; medication without some sort of therapy is rarely successful.

Rose Hoban of North Carolina Health News reported that about 150,000 people with psychiatric needs ended up in emergency rooms across North Carolina in 2012. Those that needed to be admitted to a state hospital waited an average of 3.5 days.

The story of Kendrick Gregory, who is accused of a violent crime spree through Raleigh, illustrates the great need for long-term treatment and for support for families. According to his mother, Gregory has been battling mental illness since 2011, attempted suicide, and was admitted to two hospitals for treatment.

The News & Observer reported Alicia Gregory pleaded with doctors to keep her son in the hospital. “I told her to leave him in there because he has no place to go. I told her he’s had a hard time, and he’s not in control of his mind. She told me, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll treat him.’ But a few days after that, they released him.”

There must be more resources – from both the public and private sector – that connect those in need with the treatment that will help them.

Here in North Carolina, mental health “reform” was supposed to move treatment out of institutions and into the community, which is a worthwhile goal. But as facilities were closed and beds were eliminated, the extra resources didn’t make it to the communities. According to the president of NAMI Wake County, North Carolina is one of only six states in the country that cut mental health funding in both 2013 and 2014. He reports that resources for mental health programs have actually been cut by 30 percent.

I have fantastic insurance and a strong support system. Yet, it is still difficult to navigate multiple appointments, convoluted insurance rules and different provider processes. For many, getting off work to go to an appointment in the middle of the day is simply impossible. Others don’t have child care to be able to leave their children for several hours for appointments. Paying for expensive medication can break budgets and force impossible choices.

In addition, there remains tremendous stigma over seeking treatment, leaving many to keep secrets or live in denial. The first time I saw a psychologist, I thought it was the worst thing in the world, an admission of failure that was practically insurmountable. I thought no one had problems like mine and that if anyone found out they would judge me forever. I was afraid that I would lose my job, that my family would be ashamed of me, and that life would never be the same.  

That seems ridiculous now, but it underscores the importance of the human element of addressing and treating mental health needs. As a community and as individuals, we must be both vigilant and compassionate in seeing needs and meeting our fellow citizens where they are. Hindsight is certainly 20/20 and no one is to blame for the on-air shooting except the shooter himself, but imagine if the station or a friend or a colleague had kept in touch with Flanagan, had continued to offer him support and had continued to encourage him to seek treatment. Imagine if Kendrick Gregory had a caseworker who connected him to community services and helped to provide stability and continuity.

It is the responsibility of all of us – our government, our community and each of us – to help provide the support and resources needed by those with mental illness. The costs of refusing to address these issues are simply too high.

Sara-LangSara Lang has worked in North Carolina politics at the state, federal, and local levels for more than 15 years. A communications consultant, she lives in Cary with her husband, two young children, and a pampered dog.




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