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posted: 2/1/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Give mental illness the attention it needs

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Following the school shootings in December, the nation's gun laws seemed the obvious place to look to prevent future attacks in schools, malls, theaters and workplaces. But another key theme that emerged -- and deserves a great deal of attention as well -- is the question of how to help the mentally ill.

That it takes a mass shooting for us to consider in depth the needs of the mentally ill is a tragedy in itself. Perhaps this topic is uncomfortable to us because mental health is such an imprecise science; human beings are vastly more complicated than a metal barrel with a trigger. Or maybe it's the specter of the growing costs to treat the mentally ill. Help for them is not something we can throw more money at because there isn't more money to throw. Illinois cut funding for mental health programs last year by 13 percent, the highest drop in the nation, according to a report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

There are those who believe -- as does Lora Thomas, director of the group's Illinois affiliate -- that tragedies like Sandy Hook or Aurora could not be stopped here. "We absolutely know the system in Illinois is so broken there is no community-based system that could catch or prevent it," she said in an Associated Press story this week. That's a sobering thought.

Of course, only a small proportion of gun violence comes at the hands of those with a mental illness, and it may not seem fair to point fingers at people who in reality are more likely to become victims of crime than perpetrators. Still, the shocking impact of these attacks in our minds and hearts leave us searching for any solution, and many see dealing with mental illness as the basis for prevention.

What should be done? While lawmakers weigh funding issues, an important piece of any solution must be education and awareness at all levels. Until the public has a better understanding of the signs and best treatment of mental illness -- and erases the stigma attached to it -- progress will lag.

It's a safe assumption that nearly every person's life touches someone with mental illness, whether that person knows it or not. The signs are easy to miss and tempting to ignore, especially by those not directly affected who believe "it's not my problem." But that's what is disconcerting about this issue -- it can affect anybody in ways he or she might least expect it.

These are serious disorders that are treatable. Those with mental illness need help, not disdain. Their families need understanding and support, not judgment and condemnation. This includes an awareness of the benefits of community-based programs, which not only save money but also have proved more effective for many patients.

As for prevention of future tragedies or mass shootings, we can do a better job of learning the signs in someone at risk of committing an act of violence. If we turn our backs, we all will suffer. The loss of 28 lives in Connecticut has rekindled the debate about mental illness. We must not let the conversation stop.

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