The recent tragedy at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., has brought the spotlight back to the mental health system. While only a tiny percentage of violent crimes are carried out by people with mental illnesses, we know that in this situation the gunman lived with symptoms of a mental illness.

And so the question is what has been done to prevent these tragedies and what more can be done.

Since last year’s shootings in Minneapolis and in Newtown, Conn., the Minnesota Legislature, unlike Congress, has responded.

Major improvements were made to the children’s mental health system to ensure early identification and treatment, including expanding coverage to new treatments and services, addressing workforce shortages, and increasing supports in our schools.

Funding was increased for crisis services, housing and employment for people with mental illnesses. New funding was allocated to teach people who work with youth about emerging mental illnesses.

These were important changes, but more needs to be done. Imagine having chest pains and being told to wait until you are sure it’s a heart attack before you receive care. Imagine your physician saying you have cancer and should come back when you hit stage four. It’s unimaginable. But that’s what we do in the mental health system.

When families and friends notice symptoms and a person is unwilling to seek treatment, nothing seems to be done until it becomes an emergency and the person needs hospital-level care. Care is often provided only during the emergency, with intensive services being provided only after someone has been hospitalized numerous times.

To move forward, we need to have our mental health crisis teams providing support and stabilization early on, when symptoms are emerging, including engaging individuals in treatment and educating and supporting their families.

We need to have intensive programs for people experiencing their first psychotic episode — so that their illness doesn’t become disabling and the trajectory of their life isn’t greatly altered.

Last, we need more funding for affordable housing, employment and in-home supports so that people can live in and be members of our community. People with even the most serious mental illnesses spend the majority of their lives in the community, and we need to ensure that supports are there.

These investments are sorely needed. Someone recently won $400 million in the lottery. If only the mental health system were so lucky.


Sue Abderholden is executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota.