Since the school deaths in Connecticut, our nation has seen more school and community violence, as well as the ramping up of the debate over guns and, just as importantly, over mental health services. Portage has an array of mental health treatment services for children, teens and families supported through funding by the Mental Health & Recovery Board. The board also funds the county’s 24-hour crisis services that help residents who may be threatening to hurt themselves or others and also serve as round the clock  information and referral sources.

Additionally, the board funds services that assist school staff to catch student mental health problems early while also working with families. With the Portage County Sheriff’s Office and the National Alliance on Mental Illness Portage County, the board supports and coordinates training for law enforcement to de-escalate crisis situations. On the response end, the MHRB system stands ready to make staff available when a crisis occurs at a school, business or community setting through the system’s Incident Response Team.

All of these ways that we try to prevent an incident or respond to a crisis are necessary but hardly speaks to the uncertainty of the human factor behind a single death like a suicide, a larger violent incident or some other type of community crisis.

I would like to share some thoughts from Dr. Joel Mowrey, the executive director of the Mental Health & Recovery Board of Portage County. Joel has counseled children, teens and adults for more than 30 years. His work at the board even now includes advocating for clients and families on a personal level as he oversees the local system of services. He wrote the following piece after the shootings at Sandy Hook School.

I feel a need to talk about issues related to mental health, given the recent episode of violence in our schools. I am filled with many strong and mixed emotions while struggling with my thoughts about how to prevent any more senseless deaths.

 I have been doing a great deal of listening and reflecting in the past several months, hearing widely different perspectives about gun control versus putting guns in the schools, the influences of social media (television, internet, violent games), and mental health issues. Although I have my personal perspectives on guns and the media, I do have my professional opinions about the connection between mental health issues and violence that I wish to share.

First, like physical health problems, all of us have mental/emotional issues and problems that we experience from time to time or even on a daily basis. Mental health issues are on a continuum, ranging from problems that are more severe and chronic (such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) to problems that are less intense and more situational (such as dealing with work stress). Mental health problems are a complex mixture of biological/genetic, environmental and psychological factors.

 Second, most people are not violent, including people who have more severe and chronic mental health problems. I am concerned when I hear that people with “mental illness” are dangerous and society must be protected from them. These kinds of statements only add to the stigma surrounding people who are coping with mental health issues and can certainly get in the way of someone seeking help. For the small percentage of individuals whose mental illness is a factor that can lead them to be a risk to self or others, the majority of these individuals can be helped with mental health treatment that often includes psychotherapy and medication.

 Third, as a mental health professional, I know that it is extremely difficult to predict when someone is at risk ofharm to self or others.  Unless a person directly tells us about his or her intentions or we have corroboration from another party of the person’s intentions, our profession just does not have very exact tools or tests to predict dangerousness. It is a delicate balance when we assess an individual for risk. We must simultaneously protect the rights of every individual while protecting the rights of the community to be safe.

 My final point is that although I have my concerns that the discussion about mental health may actually create more problems through blaming and stigmatizing, I welcome the opportunity to talk about mental health and addiction issues.  As a society, we need to have more mental health/addiction services that are easily and readily accessible in an accepting and welcoming environment that encourages people to seek help for any kind of health problem – physical, mental and emotional. As we always say, “Treatment works. People recover.”

 We also need more focus on prevention of problems, especially starting with children. I have always been a strong advocate for teaching children effective coping strategies to manage their own thoughts and feelings and how to resolve interpersonal conflicts in nonviolent ways that benefits all parties.  Prevention efforts with children do start with parents and families and also involve the schools, particularly with issues of bullying. We also need to continue our efforts to train “gatekeepers,” such as our police and educators among others, on how to identify individuals who are in need of help and how to safely de-escalate crisis situations and get people help.

We are all a part of the problem, especially if we do nothing, but we are also part of the solution. Fortunately in Portage County, we do have a system of quality care for people with mental health/addiction problems through our contract agencies. But the need for these services is only increasing and our reduction in funding over the past several years has limited accessibility for these services.

 What can we do?  (1) All of us must continue to advocate for funding for mental health and addiction services from our local levy efforts to our State and Federal Representatives and Senators. (2) We need to continue to address the stigma that creates misperceptions and interferes with people getting needed treatment – we need to be able to talk about all health problems in an open and accepting manner. (3) On a daily basis, we need to model with our words and actions how we treat others, how we cope with problems, and how we resolve conflicts in ways that are civil, respectful, and nonviolent.”

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