Will Newtown tragedy refocus the debate on mental health?

Only 7% of U.S. adults receive mental health services

In the wake of a tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., last week, President Obama pledged to work with mental health experts and use "whatever power this office holds" to prevent "more tragedies like this."

Obama made the pledge at an inter-faith memorial service for the 20 children—ages six and seven—and seven adults killed in the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. In his address, Obama said lawmakers could not wait to address the issues because "the politics are too hard."

Although Obama did not propose any specific legislation or focus on any particular issues, pundits, lawmakers, and experts over the weekend debated issues and proposals related to gun control, violence in the media, and mental health. According to the Wall Street Journal, almost every politician appearing on Sunday morning talk shows addressed the role of the mental health system in preventing such incidents.

It remains unclear whether the 20-year-old Newtown shooter had mental health issues. Nonetheless, the New York Times notes that many of nation's mass killers had histories of mental illness. Moreover, many of those killers showed warning signs that were missed by those around them or went unaddressed by the mental health system.

In Connecticut, the public mental health system provides services to only about 25% of adult residents with serious mental illnesses, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Nationwide, only about 7% of all adults received mental health services in 2010, according to National Survey on Drug Use and Health data. However, CDC estimates that about 25% of U.S. adults have a mental illness.

For Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was killed in the July 20 mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., addressing mental health issues is a pressing concern. "If we see a friend, a colleague, a co-worker and they’re having a hard time, we need to reach out," he says.

However, NPR science correspondent John Hamilton warns against generalizations and creating stigma. "If you look at the large group of people who have some sort of mental illness... it's not clear they're more likely to be violent," he says, adding, "And certainly not clear that they're more likely to commit mass murder" (Landler/Baker, New York Times, 12/16; Glaberson, New York Times, 12/14; Fields/Barrett/Favole, Wall Street Journal, 12/16; Hamilton, NPR, 12/16; AP/Omaha World-Herald, 12/14).

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