Newtown tragedy sparks mental heath discussion

Dr. Stephen Strakowski, UC's Sr. Associate Dean of Research & Chair of Psychiatry
Dr. Stephen Strakowski, UC's Sr. Associate Dean of Research & Chair of Psychiatry

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - In addition to bringing the gun control debate to the forefront, the Newtown Connecticut shooting has also put a spotlight on mental health issues.

In the wake of Friday's tragedy many are asking "Why?" In response, there has been a lot of speculation about what might have been going on in the shooter's mind that morning, but mental health professionals are warning that jumping to conclusions can cause more harm than understanding.

The concern is that prematurely tying tragedies like the one in Newtown to mental illness can perpetuate stereotypes and further deter people from seeking help.

Dr. Stephen Strakowski is the Sr. Associate Dean of Research and the Chair of Psychiatry at UC.

"The vast, vast majority of people with mental illness would never think of doing this just like anyone else," he explained. "They understand that this is morally reprehensible behavior".

Dr. Strakowski has been watching the unfolding coverage of the Newtown shooting, including the speculation about the shooter having a possible mental health condition.

"I think that people jump on the mental health issue because then they can put it into a 'they' category rather than a 'we' category," he argued.

Strakowski worries prematurely tying the tragedy to mental health will have negative effects.

"To try and label it off as mental illness then puts all mental illnesses off into one bucket that these are 'dangerous' or 'untrustworthy' people and it adds to the stigma and trouble of getting help," he said.

"The percent of people who are actually violent is so small in people both without mental illness and in mental illness that although yes, it's increased, it's still a very, very small minority of people," Strakowski went on to add.

Even with so many questions still unanswered, Strakowski says it is never too early to talk about mental health.

He believes as a society, more family and individual networks of support are needed to get help to people before they act out.

"Our laws are set up that even if someone is make threats there is really little anyone can do and police following the law … will tell you they can't do anything until someone actually commits a violent act," he explained.

Strakowski says the most common place people receive mental health treatment for severe mental illness these days is in jails rather than mental health facilities.

Strakowski says he would rather see a larger conversation begin that dives into the complexities that lead to violent acts instead of trying to simplify them with labels.

"The better first step is: how do we as a society foster this kind of behavior that we allow it to happen though obviously we despise it?" Strakowski offered.

The Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness authored a blog earlier this year surrounding the issue of mental health and violence. The blog was in response to public outcry following the Aurora, Colorado Shooting. In the blog, Director Mike Fitzpatrick writes "Despite many public perceptions, we do know that generally the likelihood of violence from people with mental illness is low." He referenced a U.S. Surgeon General report from 1999 that states "the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small."

According to a blog written by the director of the National Institute of Mental Health following the Tucson shooting in 2011, people with severe mental illness are up to three times more likely to be violent. He writes that the likelihood may increase when substance abuse and especially an episode of psychosis is involved. At the same time, however, Dr. Thomas R. Insel points about most people with a severe mental illness are not violent and that in the greater picture, mental illness contributes "very little to the overall rate of violence in the community". Instead, the blog references a study showing those individuals are at a higher risk of being victims rather than perpetrators.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has offices in the Tri-State. N.A.M.I. representatives encourage anyone with questions about mental illness or mental health or people interested in getting resources and referrals to call 513.351.3500.

A spokesperson says messages will be returned within 24 hours.

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