Maggie Labarta: Let's not wait for the next tragedy
Published: Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 17, 2012 at 2:32 p.m.
Yet again. This time the victims are our children; their promise cut short by someone on a “rampage.”
And, yet again, I listen to broadcasters struggling with the basic vocabulary: “deranged,” “mental problems,” “mental” — cautiously avoiding the recently banned term “lunatic,” but thinking it.
And, yet again, come the calls for “a national conversation about mental health.” But we are discussing the wrong issue.
We want to predict who will be the next “madman” behind these “senseless tragedies,” when we should be working to prevent them.
The conversation must therefore begin with education. We already have the tools.
Mental Health First Aid is a 12-hour course designed to teach anyone interested how to recognize and safely address mental health crises. This is comparable to traditional first aid training, but many of us do not see it as essential until tragedy strikes our own communities.
Traditional first aid teaches nonprofessionals the best ways to approach physical health emergencies: wounds, heart attacks, strokes.
Mental Health First Aid teaches nonprofessionals the best ways to approach mental health emergencies: suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, uncontrolled rage.
All of us need this education. We need it now in order to eliminate the stigma that our language conveys — to make our use of psychiatric terms as fluent as those associated with other equally serious illnesses.
We need it everywhere so that every community can recognize the signs of psychiatric illness, and can effectively, compassionately respond — connecting friends, family and neighbors with psychiatric illnesses to the treatment they need, when they need it.
We need to acknowledge that state after state, including those like Florida already at the bottom of the funding list, have made drastic reductions in treatment funds. Treatment for psychiatric disorders is more dependent on public dollars than any other. And even when treatment is covered by insurance, it is highly managed.
No insurance plan issues a separate policy for heart disease, or for cancer, or for diabetes. But most insurance plans commission a second company to administer psychiatric benefits; often more restrictively than for other illnesses.
How many barriers must people whose illness hampers their brain function jump through to get care? Would we tolerate that for any other illness?
In our daily lives, in state and federal governments, and in how we provide health care from first aid to hospital care, we put treatment for brain disorders in a separate silo. Then we wonder why we continually face devastation.
We need a national conversation that leads to a national initiative to better research, understand and address these illnesses. Everyone in the community can, with training, identify and respond to these illnesses.
In that educated community, sufferers would be connected to professional help before a tragedy occurs. We can begin this initiative now by adequately funding treatment for psychiatric illness in the public and private sector.
Or we can stay as we are, waiting for the next tragedy — made truly senseless by our willingness to let it happen.
Maggie Labarta is president/CEO of MERIDIAN Behavioral Healthcare Inc. in Gainesville.