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Lawmaker convenes 'After Newtown' forum at Westmoreland courthouse

| Thursday, May 2, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Mental health professionals and school and law enforcement officials participated in a public forum at the Westmoreland County Courthouse Wednesday, convened by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair.

“After Newtown: A Community Conversation on Violence and Severe Mental Illness,” focused on issues ranging from funding cuts in mental health care to the stigma that can keep a person with mental illness from thriving.

In December, gunman Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., before killing himself.

The incident led President Obama to again address gun control. A recent effort by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin to expand background checks for gun purchases failed.

Murphy acknowledged the search for solutions.

“I am concerned that many members of Congress and the White House will walk away from this tragedy after doing something, thinking that because they did something they did the right thing,” he said.

The public event included Court of Common Pleas Judge Anthony G. Marsili, a Mental Health America of Westmoreland County board member; Greensburg police chief Walter “Wally” Lyons; Hempfield Area School District superintendent Anthony Leopold, Dr. Robert M. Davis, psychiatrist with Family Services of Western Pennsylvania; and Dr. Fred Schultz, child psychiatrist and medical director, Adelphoi Village.

Murphy, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said he is gathering information and trying to audit federal tax dollars spent on mental health and direct them to programs that make a difference.

Lyons noted that in the majority of cases prior to a violent incident regarding someone with mental illness, someone was aware of a potential problem.

“The best way to curtail violence of any sort is to stop it before it happens,” he said.

Lyons noted it is difficult to get a person to self-commit for mental health.

“Currently, even repeated voluntary commitments have no bearing on a person's ability to purchase firearms in Pennsylvania,” he said.

Greensburg has recently begun training all police officers in crisis intervention training, he said, to assist with communication and de-escalation on mental health calls.

Leopold said school districts are seeing children with severe disorders “at unprecedented levels.”

District officials struggle, Leopold said, with finding the right balance of behavioral supports to help them cope.

“Children with these extreme mental health issues are at risk. Some of these children pose a risk to others,” he said.

“Mental illness is not responsible for the majority of homicides. The majority of violence is not done by the mentally ill,” said Davis.

Mental health professionals noted cuts to funding programs that had assisted consumers with housing, education and jobs.

Support from families, work and remaining involved in treatment are vital for those living with mental illness, several said.

Murphy did not directly answer several questions regarding background checks for gun purchases.

“What are we doing about the people who need treatment? ... My focus is going to be to fix the problem America has been ignoring,” he said.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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