Past Due: School Shootings Spur Attention But Not Funding For Mental Health Care

Feb 23, 2015

Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

During his inaugural speech in January, House Speaker Michael Madigan called for the creation of a task force to look into ways to prevent mass shootings, such as the 2013 Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that took the lives of 20 children and six adults.

Madigan focused on a recent report from the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate that looked into the medical and personal history of shooter Adam Lanza. “The report indicates some real problems in the mental health and educational systems in terms of identifying mental problems that Lanza had as he moved through school,” Madigan said. The task force met and took testimony today in Chicago.

After the Newtown shooting spurred calls for improving mental health care in the nation, I looked into Illinois’ mental health support system. What I found was not encouraging. In Fiscal Year 2010, Illinois ranked 36th out of states, including the District of Columbia, for spending per capita on mental health services. From that story in the March 2013 edition of Illinois Issues:

“The economic collapse — and the state budget woes that followed — left legislators looking for ways to slash spending. From 2009 to 2011, states cut more than $1.8 billion from services for adults and children with mental illnesses. During that time, Illinois cut almost $114 million in general revenue funding for mental health and was fourth in all the states for total cuts. Only California, Kentucky and New York cut more dollars from mental health spending. During that period, Illinois cut its total mental health care budget by more than 30 percent. Only three other states — South Carolina, Alabama and Alaska — reduced their budgets by larger percentages.”

You can read the rest of that story here.  Since the publication of that piece,  a small fraction of that funding rollback has been restored. But an estimated $6 billion gap in next fiscal year’s budget puts mental health services at risk for cuts again.  Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed FY 16 budget would reduce funding for mental health programs.

I hope that we all use this as an opportunity to learn more about mental illness, to engage, to break down stigma.

Another major takeaway from reporting and writing that story was that looking at mental health through the lens of preventing violence, especially violence as specific as a mass shooting, can give us a skewed view of mental illness. Multiple sources pointed out that those grappling with mental illness are far more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator. Suicide is a much more prevalent threat than a school shooting. Lora Thomas, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Illinois, told me that shootings are the exception rather than the rule of how mental illness can manifest. She added that parents who fear their children may become violent need a supportive system to turn to for help. At that time shortly after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, she said of the focus on mental health: “I hope that we all use this as an opportunity to learn more about mental illness, to engage, to break down stigma. … The brain is an integral part of the body. We really can’t have good health without good mental health. Let’s look at the brain as something that sometimes needs medical attention, too. And deal with it.”