In Wake Of Sandy Hook, Newtown Can’t Keep Up With Demand For Mental Health Services

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jessica Hill

A memorial for the victims of the elementary school massacre at Sandy Hook 14 months ago

Just 14 months after the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, charity groups and state agencies in Newtown, Connecticut are struggling to keep up with the demand for mental health services by the victims’ families and local residents, the Associated Press (AP) reports.

“We hear in the media, ‘Well Sandy Hook was 14 months ago, isn’t everything fine?'” said Candice Bohr, executive director of the Newtown Youth and Family Services, in an interview with the AP. “Well, no it’s not and we get calls every day from the school wanting to address an issue. I would love to say that in 10 years we’re going to see a huge drop and everyone’s better and we’ve moved on, but that’s not the case.”

Bohr’s organization has seen a staggering 85 percent jump in its clientele in the wake of Sandy Hook. Newtown Youth and Family Services provides all manner of care, ranging from personalized and comprehensive therapy sessions to simply answering parents’ questions about how they should conduct conversations about the tragedy with their children. Other local groups have provided art and recreational therapy and parenting classes.

Various community groups, charities, and Newtown memorial funds have banded together to raise enough money to ensure that no one is turned away for mental health care and that the services remain free. However, some of those groups, such as the Newtown Lions Club, simply can’t keep up with the demand. The organization will stop paying directly for 250 Newtown residents’ care after raising about $350,000, instead teaming up with other groups such as the Rotary Club and the Newtown Memorial Fund to sponsor a joint pool of money that covers the $30,000 per month cost of caring for 150 Newtown families.

The goal, patients’ advocates say, is to maintain a steady stream of funding for anybody who needs care well into the future. But that will likely require an assist from the federal government, whom Newtown has asked for a $7 million loan. Groups like the Rotary Club and the Memorial Fund will also have to step up their fundraising efforts for the foreseeable future as other, smaller funds begin tapering off.

Newtown is far from the first town to struggle with mental health care needs, even in the aftermath of a mass shooting tragedy. The 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, which left 32 students and faculty members dead, catalyzed a flurry of legislative fixes in this area — including more funding for community mental health services and tightened procedures for outpatient treatment — that haven’t necessarily made a long-term impact.

Last fall, more than five years after the campus shooting, former Virginia gubernatorial candidate and current state Sen. Creigh Deeds’ (D) son, who suffered from serious mental illness, stabbed his father multiple times before committing suicide. The younger Deeds was supposed to be in a psychiatric bed under an emergency custody order, but was incorrectly told that there weren’t enough available beds. That tragedy highlighted the ongoing issues with mental health services in the state. Virginia eliminated 15 percent of its public psychiatric beds between 2005 and 2010, and now has just has just 17.6 such beds per 10,000 people — which is far less than the recommended minimum of 50 beds per 10,000 people, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC). Furthermore, the state doesn’t have a comprehensive electronic system for keeping track of available mental health beds.

Advocates also say that the post-Virginia Tech response utterly failed to address the mental health needs of children in Virginia communities. Now, in the wake of the Deeds tragedy, lawmakers are finally considering legislation and funding to address that gap.

Mental health professionals say the problem is strategic, and that lawmakers rush to pass ad hoc fixes immediately after crises while neglecting the overarching systemic problems with states’ mental health regimens over the long run. “It is a repeated pattern of making recommendations and getting a little bit of effort that is not sustained,” said James Reinhard, a psychiatrist and former commissioner for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, in an interview with the Washington Post.

“After a crisis, everyone is focused on the exact thing that happened,” Margaret Nimmo Crowe, executive director of Voices for Virginia’s Children, added. “It is hard after a tragedy like that for people to take a big view.”