Despite Newtown, mental health care dangles over fiscal cliff

Updated
A woman lights candles while visiting a memorial to the victims of the recent shooting in Sandy Hook Village in Newtown, Connecticut December 17, 2012. The...
A woman lights candles while visiting a memorial to the victims of the recent shooting in Sandy Hook Village in Newtown, Connecticut December 17, 2012. The...
Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The Newtown shootings have focused national attention not just on the need for increased gun control, but also on a lack of access to mental health care. But the discussion comes at a time when lawmakers negotiating over a budget deal are mulling major cuts to programs that fund mental health services. And if they don’t act, the result could be even worse.

It’s not known for certain that Adam Lanza, who last Friday killed 20 children and 7 adults, as well as himself, was mentally ill, though reports have presented a picture of a deeply troubled young man. And already, public officials and lawmakers from both parties have stressed the need to strengthen mental health services and reporting in the wake of Lanza’s rampage.

“We’re gonna need to work on making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to a gun,” Obama said at a press conference Wednesday, announcing a task force to reduce gun violence.

But while that conversation is playing out, funding for mental health services could be in jeopardy. In continuing discussions over the fiscal cliff, Obama and Speaker John Boehner are considering long-term cuts to Medicaid, which underwrites services for more than 60 percent of people in the public mental health system, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. And that’s on top of over $4 billion in cuts already weathered in response to the recent economic downturn and state budget crunch.

Mental-health advocates say the result could be disastrous.

“We already know that people who need help aren’t getting it,” Sarah Steverman, Director of State Policy for Mental Health America told msnbc. “As there’s a decrease in coverage or a decrease in providers, the longer people have to wait for appointments, the less likely they are to go. And then they’re less likely to get the help that they need. It’s always been a problem, and I think we’ll see an even bigger problem if we do have cuts to Medicaid.”

But a failure to reach a deal could be even worse. In that case, a series of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration will take effect. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, that’ll mean an 8 percent cut to resources that the mentally ill depend on, including special education, supportive housing grants, and mental health research.

“The fiscal cliff offers a fair amount of danger” Mike Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness told msnbc, especially coming on the heels of those other cutbacks. “At a time when entire state hospitals have been closed, in-patient beds have been shut down, and hospitals are reducing the size of their programs, it’s on the community system to rebuild itself,”

One-quarter of all Americans meet the criteria for having a mental illness, and more than half do not seek treatment, according to a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

“If we learn anything from tragedy, [it’s that] you need to provide the services and support to people when they need it. And you need to provide the services and support to families when they need it,” Fitzpatrick said.

Ellen Adriani,  another friend of Nancy Lanza, told NBC News that Adam Lanza had Asperger’s, a high-functioning form of autism. “Nancy was always concerned about Adam because of his Asperger’s and the typical behavior that goes along with that,” Adriani said.

Authorities have not confirmed that Lanza was on the Autism spectrum. But experts say the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School isn’t a product of Asperger’s or autism. “There’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that people with either autism or Asperger’s are at any greater risk of committing premeditated or planned act of violence,” Peter Bell, Executive Vice President of Programs and Services with the advocacy group Autism Speaks told msnbc. “There’s nothing in the literature that would suggest that a person with autism would be more inclined to commit this kind of an act than anyone in the population.”

Bell worries that people with autism will be wrongly stigmatized by the reported association with the Newtown tragedy. “Many families are calling us now telling us their kids are going to school and their classmates are talking about the shooter who had autism. Now they’re being looked at differently by their peers.”

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Despite Newtown, mental health care dangles over fiscal cliff

Updated