Lip service won’t fund mental health


In light of the shootings in Newtown, Conn. and what is clearly becoming a growing trend of mass shootings, the American public is finally tackling two issues that have been sidelined for far too long.

After years of inaction, legislators are beginning to reconsider sensible legislation that would regulate the use of high-capacity magazine assault rifles that have no other use than as killing machines. By keeping these weapons off the streets, we could prevent the next severely deranged person from accessing the firepower necessary for them to live out his most horrific fantasies.

The words “mental health” have also made their way into the discussion. And while manufactured concern over mental illness has in the past been used as a smokescreen to avoid talking about regulating guns — if a crazy person can kill with a knife or strangle with their hands then why prevent them for packing heat, the argument goes — the issue should not be ignored. And we need to do more than pay lip service to it. 

Mental health treatment can help identify and treat those who will one day pose a danger to society. But only if we invest in proactive treatment at a young age. 

Groups like Riverdale Mental Health Association know this to be true. That is why the non-profit has placed practitioners in several local schools and provides short- and long-term treatment to students and families who would likely otherwise fall through the cracks. 

One such schools consulting program, which has been operating since 2011 with funds from Councilman Oliver Koppell’s office, operates inside the David A. Stein Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy, MS/HS 141, Riverdale Nursery School and Family Center and St. Gabriel’s School. 

Clinicians work with guidance staff, who refer students for short-term care. RMHA personnel can also refer students who require more long-term treatment. 

Placing mental health operations inside schools helps to decrease the stigma of getting help by integrating it into everyday life, according to RMHA Executive Director Robert Brewster. And by doing that, practitioners are able to reach families who would not get treatment on their own. 

“Sometimes the kids who are most in need of care are not always the kids who are the squeaky wheels,” he said. 

He could think of two children who had the potential for violence and who were not being treated until RMHA came into their schools. They were both explosive and had shown an inability to control impulsivity in the classroom. RMHA was able to engage their families and get them help. While educators often flag students who are disruptive, Mr. Brewster said his clinicians also notice the kids who are withdrawn, who never make trouble but are deeply troubled themselves.  

“We also have a concern about the kids who seem especially withdrawn, especially distant, not really able to develop relationships with classmates,” he said. 

These interventions can help prevent future massacres.  

Another school-based RMHA program is Child and Family Clinic Plus, co-sponsored by the state Office of Mental Health in collaboration with the city’s Department of Education. 

Clinics under this umbrella bring full-fledged mental health operations into “at-risk” schools. They can provide ongoing treatment and even prescribe medication. Nobody is turned away, regardless of ability to pay.

Other beacons of hope — at last in theory — include PS 24’s conflict resolution program and other programs at local schools that teach a strong sense of community and create high standards for social behavior. They won’t teach psychopaths to behave, but they can be used to help educators identify students who have a hard time grasping a sense of personable responsibility toward others. 

But these mechanisms for recognizing psychological problems are only useful if there are means for dealing with them. 

Last year, the state cut funding for RMHA’s Clinic Plus program by $140,000. Substantial Medicaid cuts have also affected the bottom line. Guidance counselors are on the front lines — directing students to such programs at schools that have them and providing assistance themselves at schools that don’t. But they are now fewer and farther between.

Fortunately, the Schapiro Foundation stepped in to make the difference when RMHA’s funding was cut. 

But competition is fierce for the few private dollars that are available, and these are exactly the types of destigmatizing early-intervention programs we should be growing, not shrinking. 

Mr. Brewster talked about the emotional toll of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which has spread nationwide and which is far from resolved. 

 “It’s hard to put a dollar value on that,” he said.