A version of this article was published in The Morning Call as a guest column on February 16, 2011.
William Isemann, President and CEO of KidsPeace
The tragic shooting in
Arizona last month should be a wake-up call for us all because it could have
been prevented. It was alarming to learn that gunman Jared Loughner exhibited
behavior indicative of mental health issues for several years, but had never
received the help he needed.
Alarming, but not
surprising, in light of the fact that funding for mental health services has
been drastically reduced over the same time period.
Young people, who should be
hospitalized or in residential treatment facilities, are being referred to an
overloaded outpatient system or, like Loughner, expelled from school because
they are seen as threats to the student body and faculties. Without treatment,
the issues troubling these kids worsen, escalating into the type of tragedies
we witnessed in Arizona and more recently, in California, where a school
shooting resulted in the death of a school administrator.
As President and CEO of
KidsPeace, a Lehigh Valley, PA-headquartered nonprofit that provides mental health care to
children, teens and young adults, I have witnessed dramatic
transformations. I’ve seen
children who were literally “saved” by well-trained medical staff and
clinicians applying tailored treatment plans of counseling, medication,
education and hard work. The complexity of needs we see today is unprecedented
and often demands that we intervene quickly to provide care -- wherever they
are needed to save a child.
Budget reductions by
federal, state and local entities, as well as reduced insurance payments, have
had an enormous impact on services for children. Fewer and fewer emotionally
and mentally impaired children are receiving the identification, diagnosis and
treatment they need. There is little funding available for outpatient
treatment, and much less for hospital or residential care that would help
children heal and become productive members of our communities.
Schools must also take a
more proactive role in identifying students with mental health issues, ensuring
that they are referred to counselors, physicians, psychologists, social workers
or clinicians for the help they need.
If parents refuse or are unable to recognize signs of illness in their
children, our schools need to inform the proper social services, medical or law
enforcement authorities that a child is spiraling out-of-control and possibly
toward a violent act.
Prevention is key.
We are calling on all public and private schools to adopt a “Threat
Assessment System” which outlines symptoms, available help and procedures if
any incident takes place.
Dr. Peter Langman,
KidsPeace psychologist and author of the book,
“Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters,”
recommends schools implement a plan based on Guidelines for Responding to
Student Threats of Violence published by Cornell and Sheras.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom
Corbett is standing firm in his commitment not to increase taxes for our
residents. He and his new Cabinet
are currently reviewing state expenditures to determine where reductions should
be made. Adding our voice to the other 130 agencies throughout the state that
provide services to support tens of thousands of at-risk children and families,
KidsPeace is urging our new governor to maintain revenue for Children and Youth
services at the current level. A total of 59% of KidsPeace funding comes
through the state. Those
reductions would have a very significant negative impact on hundreds of children
who depend on KidsPeace and other providers to serve, heal and help children
Removing money today from
mental health care budgets will only cost more in the long run – both in
financial and human costs. There is a strong linkage between mental health
disorders and juvenile justice behaviors.
Research shows that approximately 70% of children already involved with
the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder, and approximately
25% of children have a mental health disorder so severe it interferes with
their ability to function.
The system failed a young
man in Arizona and he unleashed terror on his innocent victims. Other young people
out there deal with similar demons.
Are we willing to allow the system to fail them as well? Some act out by bullying, torturing
animals or terrorizing their families.
Others bring guns to school football games, search the web for plans to
build bombs or attempt suicide. They are unable to deal with their anxiety,
depression or other emotional or mental problems without treatment from
As a society, as a nation,
as a community – we must hear their cries and make a firm commitment to provide
the hope, help and healing they so desperately need.