How Much Have We Lost?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Gifford Shooting: Another Canary Dies in the Coalmine of our Broken Mental Health System

Yesterday, I attended our three-hour Northern Virginia Delegation Public Hearing today at the Fairfax County Government Center.

Like last year's meeting, it was a long line of heroic children, families, and people who cope with struggles that I can never begin to comprehend on a daily basis asking us to do all we can not to harm them further with budget cuts. It was a stark reminder to me that government is important, impacts people's lives, and does much to help lift those who are most in need.

After the hearing, I went home to my family to spend some time with my kids before an event I had in the afternoon when I learned about the horrific shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a federal judge, a child, and over a dozen other victims.

Soon enough, we will find out more about the shooter and his motivations, but there's no question that someone who opens fire on an elected official, a federal judge, a ten year-old, and dozens of innocent people suffers from serious mental illness. We will soon learn where this man's weapon, whether his purchase was legal, and whether he was ever involved in the mental health system.

At the end of the day, whether it is this shooting (2011 - 5 dead, 20 wounded), Fort Hood (2009 - 13 dead, 30 wounded), Virginia Tech (2007 - 33 dead, dozens wounded), Columbine (1999 - 12 dead, 21 injured), or even more locally the shooting at the Sully Police Station (2006 - 2 victims) in Fairfax County, all of these underscore the dangers of easily available firearms coupled with the failures of our mental health system. Virginia's mental health system and its social safety net continues to be woefully underfunded. Virginia makes Medicaid available to only the poorest of the poor - we have the 48th lowest eligibility level in the United States - and our mental health system is overwhelmed with responsibilities and limited funding.

If health problems are not addressed early on, people end up with much worse problems uninsured problems in the hospitals. When mental health problems go untreated, people eventually end up in the criminal justice system - frequently as my clients. I am hopeful that federal health insurance reform will begin to address the failings of our health care system as it continues to be implemented.

However, when it comes to mental health, it seems like these canaries in the coal mine die every year. Constituents come and beg their elected officials at public hearings these and other unaddressed problems, yet our society continues to chase its tail with small fixes instead of its leaders exercising the leadership necessary to get the job done and keep our communities safe.

My heart goes out to Congresswoman Giffords, the families who lost their loved ones yesterday, and those who remain in the hospital. Hopefully, some good and needed change will ultimately come of this tragedy.

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