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Time to plug holes in nation’s mental health policies

Why? Do you ask why some horrible thing has happened? Have you ever received a dreaded phone call? The one that says a soldier was killed in action or a family member was diagnosed with a terminal illness? Maybe there was a hurricane or a fire. A student shot at the university. A child killed in school. A daughter pushed off of a subway platform. There are other dreaded phone calls. A college student is holed up in a basement crevice. A son is running naked in the streets brandishing a butcher knife. A mother is driving the wrong way on the interstate. Your son has killed his mother. Your daughter has killed her baby.

There are countless stories, and I have heard them personally. Do these words seem harsh, like a horror movie? I assure you that they occur in the everyday lives of common people.

Tragedies caused by nature are forceful events over which we have no control. Mental illness, which is sometimes at the forefront in a heinous tragedy, is something we could have more control over, but alas, we drag our feet or do not take action because it does not concern us.

We cannot predict who will become violent. The magic word is untreated. Violence can occur when a person with a mental illness goes untreated. Then mental illness does indeed come out of the shadows into unsuspecting lives.

What do people do when confronted with it in a family member? They seek help, as they would when diagnosed with any major disease. What happens next? In many cases, barriers. There is a shortage of hospital beds, a shortage of psychiatric professionals and incomplete follow-ups.

Sadly, there are people on the horizon who try to “protect” the mentally ill by coaching them to avoid treatment. HIPAA laws are interpreted to protect the privacy of the patient who so often does not realize he is suffering from a treatable brain disease. The very nature of the disease obscures an understanding of it.

By the time he is middle-aged, the man who shoved my daughter Kendra off of a Manhattan subway platform into the path of a train will have spent half of his life in jail. A news reporter recently visited him in prison. I watched a recording in which Andrew Goldstein apologized for killing Kendra. He said he believes in Kendra’s Law and that this tragedy should never have happened. This from the man who did it and is now on medication for his schizophrenia. I watch and wonder: When he is released, will he be able to receive care and continue on his medicine, or could he deteriorate again?

I have immersed myself in advocating for treatment of those who suffer from a mental illness. Why is that? Why am I not angry at them? It is because “there but for the grace of God, go I.” As human beings, we are all in this together and we need to work together to bring about change. I have huge respect for so many people, professionals and family members, who work tirelessly to knock down the barriers to treatment. I have associated with organizations that would knock your socks off; people who devote perpetual time and energy to create quality of life for the mentally ill.

I must also point out that people with mental illness are victims more often than perpetrators. In my county, a young man with a mental illness was doused with gasoline and started on fire to die. We are late in coming to help so many, but we can start this minute to prevent the next tragedy.

Last month, a congressman from Pennsylvania introduced a bill that would bring dramatic change to the nation’s mental health system. Rep. Tim Murphy, a psychologist and co-chairman of the Mental Health Caucus, put forth the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. It has provisions to bring about profound changes to the holes and inconsistencies in our nation’s mental health policies. I could cite statistics and financials to encourage you to support this legislation, but instead I ask, or rather beg, you to read about it yourself.

Mental health care should not be a political football. Laws should be enacted to help those most vulnerable in our society. Should it matter to you? Do you pick up the paper and ask: “Why?” Now you can do something about it. Check online and in the newspaper for further information.

Pat Webdale, of Fredonia, writes for Silver Magazine, a 55-plus magazine for Western New York and Northern Pennsylvania. Her daughter Kendra was pushed off of a subway platform to her death in January 1999.