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Foss: More mental health resources needed

Foss: More mental health resources needed

Foss: More mental health resources needed
Brian E. Beloncik Sr. of Rotterdam held police at bay for eight hours after allegedly firing a BB gun at a neighbor
Photographer: Marc Schultz

It's difficult to know exactly what prompted a Rotterdam man to fire a BB gun at a neighbor and hole up in his house for hours last week, ignoring police commands, but I'm inclined to believe his son's explanation: The underlying problem is a long history of mental illness.

Mental illness is often a factor in violent public spectacles. 

It was a factor when a suicidal Glenville resident wielding a knife was shot and killed by police in 2017. It was a factor when an Iraq War veteran suffering from schizophrenia and PTSD was killed by police in his Rotterdam home in 2016. 

Every time a mentally disturbed person suffers a breakdown in public, or is driven to take their own life, I wonder what might have been done to prevent the crisis from escalating to such a dire point.

In the wake of new federal data showing an alarming rise in the U.S. suicide rate, and the high-profile suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, this question seems more urgent. 

And yet it isn't clear to me what the answer is. 

It's easy to say that people who feel depressed and suicidal should get help. 

But is help readily available? Is treatment easy to find? Are there resources for those struggling with mental illness in every community? 

The answer, all too often, is no.

"There are not enough options available to people," Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association in New York State, told me. "It should be easier for people to get help. People should not have to wait weeks and months to get access to a counselor." 

People in the midst of a mental health crisis do have options: They can call a suicide hotline or go to the hospital. A friend or relative might summon the police to intervene. 

What's needed, Liebman said, are more services aimed at preventing a mental health problem from turning into a full-blown crisis that endangers lives and requires an emergency response. Prevention services are "dramatically underfunded," he said. 

This basic point was echoed in an essay printed in The Village Voice by Jennifer L. Pozner titled, "Who Are We Telling Depressed People to 'Reach Out' to, Anyway?"

"If we truly want to keep people alive and thriving, we need more than platitudes about calling friends or suicide hotlines in a moment of extreme crisis -- we need ongoing, substantive, broad-based investment in mental healthcare," Pozner writes. 

According to the Virginia-based, non-profit organization Mental Health America, 56 percent of Americans with a mental illness do not receive treatment. Approximately 20 percent of Americans say they have sought treatment, but failed to get the help they need. 

At the end of the day, it all adds up to millions of people whose mental health needs are going unaddressed.

Liebman believes that one way to help these people is school-based mental health education. 

Thanks to legislation passed in 2016, New York is set to become the first state in the country to require mental health education in public schools.

The hope, Liebman said, is that teaching students about mental health will demystify it, eliminate the stigma that makes it difficult for people to talk about it and make students aware of the signs and symptoms of different mental health illnesses. 

It's a worthy project -- one that will instill a deeper understanding of mental health in the students of today and tomorrow. Teaching them how to recognize and respond to a mental health crisis will prevent crises down the road. 

What it won't do is supplant the need for more mental health counselors and treatment programs -- inpatient, as well as outpatient -- for people in need of them. 

Helping all of those people will require a substantial investment, but it's an investment that's worth making. 

The payoff will be a lower suicide rate and a reduction in the number of violent confrontations that roil our communities. It's an investment that will save lives, and what's more important than that? 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.


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