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Long-term mental health care is a must for mass shootings to end

By Hildegard Messenbaugh, MD

 

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The Denver Post | Guest Commentary 

As jury selection begins for the trial of James Holmes, the alleged perpetrator of the July 2012 Aurora theater shootings that left 12 people dead and 70 injured, I see one bright spot in a process that will otherwise force us to relive unspeakable tragedy.

Let’s use this reminder to make mass shootings in America a thing of the past.

For the last 30 years I've dedicated my life to rehabilitating extremely troubled teens. I've worked with young adults who as children suffered unimaginable abuse or trauma. I've helped kids with paranoid schizophrenia regain a foothold and become productive members of society. I've taken in those who have cycled through dozens of foster homes and treatment centers and had no hope left.

And here’s what I've learned:

Regrettably, the current mental health system is too disjointed, difficult to access and structurally inefficient to effectively meet the needs of our most seriously mentally ill citizens. We set people with mental illness up for complete and utter failure. It’s simply untrue to say that we as a society provide any meaningful support to children and adults battling mental health demons.

In a December 2014 letter, Holmes’ parents called their son “a human gripped by severe mental illness.” His is a sickness that no six-week psychotherapy program could have cured.

The way to prevent the next mass shooter from acting on his thoughts is to make long-term, affordable mental health care a reality for the people who desperately need it. We’ll all benefit.

Notice the pronoun I used in the previous point to describe the next mass shooter – his. That was on purpose. America’s mass shooters have almost exclusively been male. So why aren't we focusing more keenly on boys and young men with troubled pasts and mental illness, and providing them the intensive services they need to avert deadly action and move toward healthy living? Of course we should continue to care for and rehabilitate girls and young women in similar circumstances, but at this point, it looks as if we’re just blatantly ignoring the evidence. Boys and young men need extra help.

I wish there were a simple solution to this societal problem, but there’s not. The truth is that we need to provide highly individualized, long-term care to the people whose history suggests that they could inflict atrocious harm on their surroundings. I know our starting point, and that includes long-term mental health care units, court hearings to determine sanity, and medication management, to name a few good options.

It will take a monumental, concerted effort by policy makers, government leaders, insurers, health care providers and other stakeholders to make the investment and changes needed to adequately care for the extremely mentally ill and traumatized and finally put these mass shootings to an end. Until then, the next one shouldn't come as a surprise.

 

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Hildegard Messenbaugh, M.D., is the founder and medical director of Denver's Third Way Center, an organization that offers residential and other treatment for high-risk, mentally ill, disadvantaged and often homeless adolescents and their families.

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