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  (ARCHIVES)Back to Current
Stop ignoring it (08/01/2012)
By Frances Edstrom


The reaction to the mass shootings in Colorado that killed 12 and wounded 58 people was one of horror. Life can be like a frightening fun-house. One minute youíre on solid ground, and the next, the ground falls away below your feet and throws you into the abyss. An incident such as this reminds us that life is fragile, and we can not always control our destiny.

But before the smoke even cleared, the predictable political activistsógun control advocatesócame barreling in to make their case for stricter gun controls. No matter that a year ago in Norway, sixty-nine people were killed in a single attack by one gunman. Norway has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world.

So the conversation in the United States after a mass shooting has been defined and limited to the same old fightóguns. And it is a fight that neatly skirts the real problem, while taking up so much ink and air and screen time that the real problem is, as always, left in the dust and forgotten.

When is this country going to have a national discussion about mental illness and how our laws prevent us from dealing effectively with those who suffer with it? When are we, in our no-fat, no-sugar, no-smoking, no-drinking society going to demand better diagnostic tools and treatment for mental illness? When will we demand that government make it easier for those suffering with mental illness to find effective treatment?

Many of you readers will have had some experience with the laws in this country which come into play when we turn eighteen. At eighteen, a person can get married without parental consent, buy a house, and vote. But, donít start to celebrate. At eighteen, men must register for the draft, even though there hasnít been one since after the Viet Nam war. They also can be accused of statutory rape (got a 15-year-old girlfriend?), go to jail, gamble away all their (your?) money, and be sued. An eighteen-year-oldís parents have no legal access to their childís grades, or, worst of all, health recordsóeven if those parents are paying their kidís health insurance premium until age 26.

At eighteen, we are considered adults, and are covered by HIPAA, or the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act; you know, the form they always make you sign when you go to the doctorófor privacy.

If a person has a mental illness, this means that the people who most care about him, his family, now have no right to any information about this sick adult from doctors or other health care providers. And this occurs at an age when many mental illnesses tend to blossom into acute problems.

Parents are forced to try to keep track of a child with mental illness in any way they can. They can not demand that their child live with them, or even near them. They can not get a call from a doctor warning them that their child has gone off medication, or is showing signs of being in distress. They can not get a call from their childís school telling them that the kid is failing classes, drinking to excess, or on drugs. Most often, the call will come, if it does, from upset neighbors, or the police. Even then, parents can not demand that their child seek help or be checked into a hospital. And most people in authorityóhealth care workers, college and university workersógo along with this absurd plan. Itís the law, you know.

We wage wars and crusades on things we donít like, such as cancer and drugs, and spend billions in federal dollars to make it appear that we are doing something. But those with mental illness donít get that much attention.

We have to understand that much of the pain in the world is felt and caused by people with untreated mental illness. Itís not just the ďcrazyĒ people on city streets who make us uncomfortable who are suffering from mental illness. Itís people in good families as well as bad, itís people with good jobs as well as no jobs, smart people, not-so-smart people, people who go to church and people who donít.

And we donít know why. We donít know why a guy who was smart but flunking out of his graduate studies in Colorado all of a sudden shot down seventy people in a movie theater, killing 12. We donít know why he booby-trapped his apartment, which could have killed scores more.

Donít you think itís about time to do something about it? I suggest another look at the HIPAA laws for a start. Give people some power to help their mentally ill family members. 


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