Letter to the editor: WHY does this continue to happen?

Published 6:34 pm Tuesday, January 22, 2013

To the Editor:
I have just watched the nationally televised message from Vice President Biden and President Obama, who spoke about the “moral obligation and responsibility” of our great country to enact stronger gun control laws, in light of the continuing mass shooting tragedies. Attending the address were families and friends of the 20 first graders and six school staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary, murdered just 33 days ago. VP Biden also referred to another invited guest, a youång man who was a student at Virginia Tech in 2007. He was a survivor, yet still carries three bullets in his body from thaåt horrific day. Biden had spoken personally with him and quoted his statement. “I still think about that day, but as more time goes by, I think about WHY does this continue to happen?”
I couldn’t help but be reminded of the wonderfully written article by Gene Lyons, which appeared in the WDN on January 9; “Stop Stigmatizing Mental Illness.” While I totally agree that our nation’s laws concerning gun possession need to be stronger, I believe there is a second “moral obligation and responsibility” that is an equal, if not a higher priority. Our Mental Health system has failed the public’s safety, by failing to properly provide services, programs and treatments for those with significant, severe and persistent mental illness. There were plenty of warning signs in the backgrounds of these mass murderers; Seung-Hui Cho (VA Tech), Jared Loughner (Rep. Gabby Gifford in Arizona), James Holmes (Batman movie in Aurora, CO), and Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook Elementary School). These men were in a state of mind that the general public refuses to understand and consequently, keeps the stigma alive. Our state and federal legislators continue to act with deaf ears and little compassion when it comes to funding for mental health programs that have a good basis for treatment and outcome. In North Carolina, the budget for the Department of Health & Human Services (funding not only for the Mentally Ill, but the Intellectually Handicapped and Substance Abuse Programs) has been slashed consistently (nearly 25 percent) in the past four years.
We all understand that laws are created to protect and respect each individual’s civil rights. But there are laws in place that need to be addressed and modified. Quoting New York Times columnist, Joe Nocera (Gene Layons article), “Rules around mental illness are built on a delusion: that the sickest among us should always be in control of their own treatment, and that deinstitutionalization is the more humane route.” If we are serious about the safety of all individuals, it’s time to face the facts that gun laws will not prevent these horrific tragedies. We must stand up and demand changes to strengthen mental health services. Are we truly willing to open the closet door and throw out this stigma, or will we remain apathetic? These unspeakable tragedies are waiting to repeat themselves if we fail to act.
(25 year member of  National Alliance on Mental Illness)