Friday, 21 December 2012

Connecticut Tragedy: A reasonable vehicle for addressing mental health needs in young people?

Recent media coverage, sensationalistic and omnipresent as it is (and, by the way – has anyone noticed the correlation between frequency of school shootings and this type of media coverage?) has raised numerous issues about the relationship between the tragic story in Connecticut and youth mental health.  Largely the story line has gone something like this: oh my gosh, this young man had a psychiatric diagnosis; his mental illness likely made him act this way; why can’t our society do a better job of identifying youth who are likely to have this kind of negative impact; we need to fix our mental health services.

Have we ever wondered where that kind of story line takes us?  Does it take us to a rational and evidence based understanding of mental health and mental disorders?  Does it take us to a place where we can logically develop mental health care that meets the needs of young people and their families?  Does it provide reliable information about what a mental illness is and how a mental illness may or may not lead to specific behaviors and outcomes? OR – does this kind of knee-jerk reporting maybe increase the stigma associated with mental illness, lead to inaccurate understanding of what a mental disorder is and how that relates to specific kinds of behaviors and in both the long and short run, do a disservice to all those who are living with a mental disorder, their families and those who work to help them get well and stay well?

We know that easily accessible, responsive and best quality mental health care is not readily available for most young people who need it. We know that most young people with mild to moderate or non-complex mental disorders can be appropriately and effectively treated in primary care (click here to check out the child and youth mental health components.) We also know that it is the tiny minority of young people with a mental disorder who require intensive and high acuity mental health care.  And, we know that is only a tiny minority of those who may have a mental disorder of the type that leads to the tragedy recently played out in Sandy Hook So why is this event even considered to be the poster child for mental health reform?

I think we need to have many adult conversations that this tragic incident forces us to consider.  The most obvious one is that of: how to best deal with the killing capacity of the final common pathway – automatic/semi-automatic weapons and handguns.  The Dunblane school shootings in Scotland led to popular protest that led to changes in gun related legislation that has been associated with a substantial decrease in deaths of young people from shootings.  This is a no-brainer – or maybe this is the problem.

We also need to fix the mess that is mental health services for young people – everywhere.  Just because we live in Canada does not mean that we are doing what needs to be done – on the contrary.  But we don’t need to have a tragedy to address this reality, we need commitment from all of us and political will.


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