Correction: The phone number for the Havre Center for Mental Health is 265-9639. In today's print edition of the Havre Daily News it was listed incorrectly.
Local mental health care officials say an ironic result of the Dec. 14 tragedy may lead to increased awareness, understanding and treatment of mental illnesses — even though no evidence has arisen that the shooter who killed his mother and then 20 first-graders and six teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newport, Conn., before killing himself had any history of mental illness.
"Whether or not mental illness is an appropriate focus when we're talking about this specific case in Connecticut... something positive that comes out of it is shining a spotlight on how we look at mental illness in this country and how we treat it, " said Kevin Zoren, adult case manager at the Center for Mental Health in Havre. "It, again, is going to come down to how the media treats it. "
Adam Lanza, 20, is reported to have lived with a high-functioning autism-spectrum disorder known as Asperger's syndrome, not linked to violent behavior. Suzanne Lockwood, psychiatric registered nurse at Center for Mental Health, said the disorder is not classified as a mental illness.
Lockwood and Zoren both said that what the tragedy could bring to light is the misconception between mental illness and violence — 60 to 70 percent of Americans believe that mentally ill people are violent, Zoren said, yet an article in the New England Journal of Medicine reports that only a fraction of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illnesses.
News coverage exacerbates that, Zoren added: "60 percent of media reporting on mental illness is about violence, yet, again, when you compare that to that statistic of 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes are committed with people with mental illness, that seems a little unbalanced. "
Despite the lack of evidence being presented that Lanza suffered from any mental illness — he generally has been described as extremely intelligent and extremely withdrawn, but not rebellious or violent — the Newport shooting has brought increasing funding and capability of treatment of mental illness into the spotlight.
Lockwood said treatment of mental illness has become increasingly difficult to provide or obtain since the repeal of the National Mental Health Systems Act in 1981, under the administration of President Ronald Reagan, no regular sustainable funding has been available for providing treatment for mental illness. That act was replaced with block grant funding, but that funding has repeatedly been cut, she said.
"They have not replaced that with anything, " Lockwood said. "There has been no long-term sustainable mental health care instituted in this country since that happened. Now we're faced with trying to piece-meal care together with programs such as Medicaid, and, of course, not everybody has Medicaid, not everybody qualifies for Medicaid.
"So, we have this huge group of people, I think, that we're not serving, " she said.
She said the problem is increased because health insurance, generally, does not cover treatment of mental illnesses or pay for medication for them. While the health care reform passed in 2009 does improve that coverage, Lockwood said she — and the mental health care community in general — do not believe it goes far enough.
What medications are covered, in programs such as Medicaid or Veterans Affairs, also is a problem, she said. Many newer drugs, which she would prefer to prescribe due to better results and fewer side effects, are not covered.
She made comments similar to Zoren's — while untreated mental illnesses can lead to violence, most people suffering from mental disorders, especially if properly treated, are not violent.
Lockwood said statistics show that 1 in 17 people will suffer, in their lifetime, from one of the four most problematic mental illnesses: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Statistics have shown that, since health care professionals first began describing it in the 1850s, the numbers on schizophrenia have not changed — 1 in 100 people suffers from that disorder.
And the public has a misconception that schizophrenics often are violent, she added. That is increased by well-known cases such as the Unabomber of Montana, Ted Kaczynski, who was a schizophrenic, who, while his illness was untreated, began a nationwide bombing campaign that killed three people and injured 23 more.
That is not the norm, Lockwood said.
"The statistics show that a mentally ill person is more likely to be a victim of violence rather than be the perpetrator of violence … not that it doesn't happen, but it's much less than people would think, " she said.
She added that increasing resources to treat mental illness would reduce even that small percentage.
"We certainly can. I think, cut down that likelihood tremendously if we are able to treat people and do a better job of preventing violence, " she said.
She and Zoren also said that a bigger problem is substance abuse — which can commonly be connected with mental illness.
Some people, who do not have prescribed medications, try to use alcohol to offset their disorders — called self-medication in the medical community, Lockwood said.
Many also have substance addictions along with their mental illnesses, known as dual-diagnosis.
"Substance abuse lends to violence, " Lockwood said. "People who abuse substances are way more likely to be violent — so alcohol, meth, coke, you name it. "
Both Lockwood and Zoren also said a key to treating mental illness, and to preventing violence, is for people to seek help for themselves or their friends or family members.
Lockwood said programs such as the National Alliance for Mental Illness' Family to Family program, being offered this winter for the first time in Havre, is one way for people to find help. Other educational programs could be very helpful, if funded fully, she said.
She said people need to look for help, and to have support networks
Signs of problems can be that people change what they do and how they act, who have been active in their community or in their social network then withdraw from that. The north-central Montana region also has many veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, and need a strong support group, she said.
Zoren said one important fact to remember is that help, such as provided by the Center for Mental Health, is not only for people with serious mental illnesses.
"My advice would be to anyone who is feeling that their thoughts or behaviors are causing them disruption in any major sphere of their life — be it career, be it family, be it friendships — that they seek help, " he said.
And both Lockwood and Zoren said that, at any sign of problems, people should seek help for themselves or their friends or families — any signs or discussions of self-destruction or that people might act out against others should never be minimalized or trivialized.
"The worst thing you can do is just ignore it, I think, " Lockwood said.
She added that a good — increasing the understanding and treatment of mental illness — could be a lasting tribute to the Connecticut victims.
"All of those victims deserve way more than just our tears. They deserve some kind of funding (for) mental health perhaps, some change in the way we deal with violence in this country, certainly more than just our grief, " she said.
Mental health and suicide crisis line numbers:
Havre Center for Mental Health: 406-265-9639
Great Falls: 1-800-273-8255
Center for Mental Health after hours: 1-888-718-2100
Warm Line: 1-877-688-3377
Voice of Hope: 1-406-268-1330
Suicide prevention line: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)