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In the wake of Sandy Hook, mental illness is center stage

By Dr. Zachary B. Steele

As most of you know, I am a father of two.  Before I get to some mental illness topics, I wanted to take a minute to talk about my oldest child. Her name is Janie.  She is a kindergartner at Paine Elementary.

Janie loves to dance. She asks to dance in the living room every night after her bath.  You can find her sitting with the cheerleaders at the Husky basketball games.  She wants to be one of those Husky cheerleaders one day.

She likes to dress in a ballerina outfit and take batting practice in the front yard.  She has a sweet left-handed swing.  She loves her baby brother Bryant, no matter how much he teases her.

When I first heard the news of what happened Friday in Newtown, Conn., like most parents, I immediately thought of my daughter in her classroom, with all of her friends, reading or cutting shapes or coloring.

When I thought about the terror that must have gone through those poor kids in Sandy Hook Elementary School, tears began to well up.

It could have been my daughter.

It could have been your son.

Early reports suggest the Sandy Hook killer had a mental disorder. The mass killers in Tucson and on the Virginia Tech campus did, too. It appears the Aurora, Colo., shooter is mentally ill.  You might have heard the Aurora shooter applied to UAB.  My wife was threatened by a mentally ill student when she gave him a failing grade in a course at UAB last year.  At least recently, these mass murderers are a deadly combination of genius level smart and mental illness.

When 20 innocent children die in a school along with six adults, it’s hard to keep these mass murders in perspective. It’s hard to remember that only a small subset of severely disturbed persons commit them. A 2006 study found that the vast majority of violent acts in America are not attributable to mental illness. Persons with mental illness are more likely to be victims.

Asking how we can keep guns out of the hands of someone such as Adam Lanza is an important question. But it is not the only one that needs to be asked. It may not be the most important one. The best way to keep severely disturbed individuals from committing murders is by getting them into treatment facilities where they can get help and not harm others.

Connecticut has an estimated 140,000 residents with severe mental illnesses. About half are not getting any treatment. Why? Between 2005 and 2007, the state closed 17 percent of its public hospital beds for treating psychiatric disorders. What happened to the patients who used to get help in those facilities? In states across the country, including Alabama, people with psychiatric problems who could be dangerous are being released to the streets because there are no treatment beds available.

In addition to debating gun control, we need to ask why our mental health system is failing us.

Dr. Zack Steele is a 2003 Graduate of UAB School of Optometry.  His Practice, Trussville Vision Care is located on Chalkville Road, in downtown Trussville.

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