Our opinion: The mental health gorilla

In the wake of the slaughter of 26 people at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, two issues came to the forefront of the national discussion: gun control and mental health.

In the intervening months, most of the discussion (which might better be described as argument) has been on gun control. Far less has been on mental health.

Last week, however, there was significant discussion in Warren County of the relationship among mental health, crime, law enforcement and incarceration, although it wasn’t specifically prompted by a single, tragic incident.

This discussion was induced by the realization that more and more mental health issues are being handled by the criminal justice system with prison as the solution rather than meaningful treatment. The simple warehousing of mental health cases virtually ensures recidivism, a mushrooming jail population, and a growing financial burden on taxpayers.

Gathered at Warren State Hospital, state and local elected officials, bureaucrats and mental health experts tackled the gorilla. They described it beautifully. They were, through no fault of their own, unable to subdue it.

There is a mental health crisis in America for which there is no simple fix.

Over the past several decades the philosophy of mental health treatment has, in many ways, acted like the silver orb in a pinball machine. It is a complicated subject, fraught with issues ranging from individual civil rights to the broad spectrum of mental health issues.

It is both ironic and an anecdotal illustration of where society stands with respect to mental health that the conference, called by state Rep. Kathy Rapp, was held in a facility whose patient population is a shadow of what it was just 30 years ago, while indications are that the need for mental health services appears to be just as high or higher now.

Just how much of that shift away from in-patient services is due to government cost-cutting and how much has been due to a shift in treatment philosophies can be debated. The fact that the shift has occured and that the result has been an increased burden on the prison system isn’t debatable.

Last week’s conference was a good start. The heavy lifting lies ahead. It involves the difficult shift from an emphasis on incarceration after the fact, to treatment before the fact. Preventing a crime before it is committed is far more preferable to reacting to it afterward. And, it all must be done while balancing the civil rights of individuals with the right of the public to be protected.