It almost always seems, in hindsight, as though there was once an omen, overlooked by the blind eye of a loving parent or an oblivious school teacher.
A mother finds a drawing tucked into the windowpane of her son’s bedroom, crumpled and moist with early December frost. There are scabs of crayon wax and bits torn out from the page, but the image is unmistakably that of a young woman, the tangled pearls of a rosary hanging loosely from the creases of her elbows. Her mouth and eyes have been slit through by the friction of a red marker; the color stains through the entire page. At her feet, the spent shells of a steaming gun.
Two weeks later, Nancy Lanza’s son will take the lives of 20 children and six adults with a .223-caliber rifle. The drawing is left to decompose in the windowpane. Such augural evidence often slips through the fingers of individuals ill-equipped to provide proper psychiatric diagnoses. It is left behind as an eerie testimony to the tragic manifestations of a gangrenous, yet treatable, condition.
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, the question of effective sociopolitical reform and preventive measures aimed at controlling homicidal violence in schools and civil institutions seems to have cemented itself around the issue of gun control in the U.S. But gun control policy, albeit an issue of tremendous importance in political public discourse, seems overwhelmingly eclipsed by the hulking, yet largely neglected subject of mental health. The forum for discussion on mental illness has been stifled by a pervasive culture of anathema and vicious stigma. We remain doggedly reluctant to openly identify and address the mental deviances and shortcomings of ourselves and others, making open, candid dialogue nearly impossible to achieve.
Data published by the National Alliance for Mental Illness show that over 21 percent of U.S. citizens from the ages of nine to 17 years old are currently suffering from a disorder diagnosable by criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. According to follow-up data released by the National Health Policy Forum, 70 to 80 percent of such conditions are left untreated. Court records often depict most perpetrators involved in school- or institution-wide acts of violence as exhibiting some abnormal symptomatic behaviors from a young age that most adept psychiatrists could have identified as precursors to a severe mental condition, with the potential to be treated and possibly cured by medication and therapeutic practices.
But they weren’t.
Article 39 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states the responsibility to “take all appropriate measures to promote psychological recovery” after a traumatic event. What are these aforementioned measures? How are they being implemented? More importantly, why should they be limited to the treatment of physical or emotional trauma? Appropriate mental health care should be available to any child exhibiting symptoms of psychological discomfort, without exception.
But it isn’t.
The federal government is simply not providing the adequate educational and medical healthcare resources to meet the needs of children suffering from mental illnesses. A 2002 report released by the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health ascertained that there was “currently no agency or system clearly responsible or accountable for young people with serious emotional disturbances.” Since then, the only pragmatic reform in mental health care for minors, a program for preventative violence funded by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Departments of Education and Justice, has been limited to about 80 high schools across the country.
Only 20 percent of mentally ill children are eligible for Medicaid benefits—which itself only covers 24 percent of mental health care expenditures. Such restricted benefits are not only limited to low-income families. Inpatient and outpatient healthcare are some of the only critical medical issues still under lifetime dollar limits of private insurance companies. The State Children’s Health Insurance Program, enacted by Congress in 1997, aimed to rectify this problem by providing health coverage to students who are not eligible to receive benefits from Medicaid. Sixteen states have adopted it. It only covers 20 percent of healthcare expenditures. There is talk about “identification in schools.” No official program is in place.
It seems glaringly apparent that the current state of mental health care coverage for minors in this country is deplorable. Early intervention in providing psychological services at a young age would not only dramatically reduce crime rates and acts of violence, but would also act to ease the consumptive suffering that accompanies debilitating mental disorders. Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that every individual “has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.” Does the availability of adequate mental health care and the alleviation of emotional distress not indubitably stand as an inalienable human right?
The question is no longer one of gun control, of more scrupulous screening procedures, or of increased law enforcement. The problem is not the weapon itself, nor the act, but the mental stability of the individual wielding the weapon. There are currently 270 million firearms circulating in civilian hands across the United States. Reformed policy on gun control is simply not going to instantly eradicate the numbers, nor is it going to prevent mentally unstable individuals from acting on their pain.
The availability of mental health services for all is perhaps one of the most critical sociopolitical concerns of our generation. It needs to be acted upon. More effective healthcare policies and identification methods need to be firmly implemented in schools. There needs to be increased funding for organizations designed to provide children with the psychiatric and therapeutic care they need, without stigmatizing their conditions. Such proactive changes are feasible, and much more sensitive to civilian activism and awareness than changes in gun control policy.
Crayon scribbles and childish drawings should be surrounded by alphabet magnets and exhibited on family refrigerators. They don’t belong in broken homes as haunting reminders of a solvable problem.