In Sandy Hook wake, mental health and guns intersect again

Chris Togneri
| Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 10:30 p.m.

More than a month after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in a Connecticut elementary school, the nation continues to search for answers.

Some propose gun controls; others seek to re-examine the mental health care system.

Former FBI Special Agent Jim Fisher, a retired professor of criminal justice at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, said nothing will prevent bloodshed.

“It's all feel-good talk intended to make people feel safe,” he said. “But life is not safe.”

The only way to prevent mass shootings, Fisher said, is to force every American to undergo a mental health examination, then imprison anyone who fails. In reality, society lacks the resources to diagnosis every dangerous sociopath, let alone pay for their forced treatment, he said.

“It would require a degree of monitoring and government intrusion that would be abhorrent to most people,” Fisher said. “In the end, most of us would say that to maintain our freedom and keep government from being even more costly than it already is, we're going to have to accept the crime.”

Yet mental health experts say small steps can lower the likelihood of mass shootings, even if a panacea does not exist.

They urge a national dialogue on how America treats the mentally ill.

“If a kid gets diagnosed with cancer, everybody in the community rallies around them,” said Amanda Thomas, a family adviser for Forging Futures, which counsels parents and their kids who suffer from mental illness. “But you start talking about, ‘My kid might be bipolar,' nobody knows how to respond.

“I hope for the sake of our children that this is going to be the start of a bigger, more uncomfortable conversation,” she said. “As a country, we need to be able to say, ‘I'm not perfect. My kid's not perfect. How do we work together to deal with this?' ”

Nearly 58 million Americans, or one in four adults, experience a mental health disorder in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Arlington, Va. One in 17 Americans lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder; one in 10 children has a serious mental or emotional disorder, the alliance reports.

Authorities haven't confirmed that doctors diagnosed Adam Lanza, 20, the Newtown, Conn., gunman who killed his mother and himself following his massacre, with a mental disorder. Lanza's mother told friends that her son had Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta considers autism a developmental disability.

Experts say a diagnosis isn't necessary to know that mental illness played a role in the slaughter.

“No healthy kid does this,” Thomas said. “No treated kid would intentionally do harm like this.”

Fewer than one-third of adults and one-half of children diagnosed with mental disorders receive treatment in a given year, according to alliance statistics.

Western Pennsylvania's recent history of mass shootings illustrates that treatment doesn't always work.

In 2000, Richard Baumhammers, 34, of Mt. Lebanon shot and killed six people. The next month, Ronald Taylor, 39, of Wilkinsburg killed three people and wounded two others during a shooting spree.

Both men had undergone mental health treatment, said Dr. Christine Martone, the chief psychiatrist for Allegheny County Behavioral Assessment Unit.

Last March, John Shick, 31, who received extensive treatment for schizophrenia, walked into the lobby of the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland with two semiautomatic handguns. He killed a therapist and wounded five hospital workers before University of Pittsburgh police officers fatally shot him.

Martone, who examined Baumhammers and Taylor and countless other mentally ill criminals in Allegheny County, said it is difficult to gauge success in mental health treatment.

“We only know when we've failed,” Martone said. “I don't know how many times someone I've forced into treatment would have otherwise done something bad. I don't know how many suicides in the jail I've prevented. I only know when I failed.

“But we can't just throw our hands up and say, ‘We can't do everything, so we're not going to do anything,' ” Martone said. “No, we can't make it perfect, but we can make it better.”

Mental health advocates want more money for services.

Last year, Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a 20 percent cut to Human Services funding, which includes programs for mental health care. He settled on a 10 percent cut after negotiation with the Senate.

“We're not the federal government; we have to have a balanced budget in Pennsylvania,” Corbett told the Tribune-Review last month. “And I made a promise that we're not going to raise taxes.”

Despite the cuts, Pennsylvania spends more than all but three states on mental health programs, said Lynn Patrone, executive assistant to the deputy secretary of the state Office of Mental Health. Pennsylvania last year spent $280 per capita on mental health programs, compared with an average $120 in other states, Patrone said.

Politicians have reignited national debate about gun control.

President Obama vowed to push for “sensible, common-sense steps ... to make sure that the kinds of violence we saw in Newtown doesn't happen again.” The National Rifle Association, the nation's powerful gun lobby, argued giving teachers guns would make schools safer.

Corbett said he would not support gun control laws, with the possible exception of requiring a gun owner to lock up firearms in a home where someone with a mental illness lives.

Preventing violence requires contributions from different fields, Martone and others said. Keeping guns out of dangerous people's hands is part of the equation, they said, as is identifying and treating the mentally ill and simply looking out for others.

“Families are not as tight as they used to be, communities are not as tight as they used to be,” Martone said. “In tighter communities, some of these people might have been recognized. Shick's family lived far away on a boat; he was someone who could go undetected.

“People will always kill people,” she said. “There's always going to be violence. There's always going to be mental illness. We can't make it all go away. But we can prevent some of it.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or

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