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Avoiding tragedies

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Given recent incidents involving public violence, improving mental health services should be a top priority for community leaders.

But for unknown reasons, it’s not. We seem content to stand by and watch repeated acts of bloodshed take place by people with psychological problems and do nothing to enhance a system that will keep all of us safer.

Miriam Carey, a 34-year-old Connecticut woman, attempted to drive through barricades at the White House and the Capitol on Thursday and led police on a high-speed chase through Washington. Ms. Carey was shot to death, and a Secret Service agent and a member of the Capitol Police were injured.

On Sept. 16, Aaron Alexis killed 12 people and injured three others at the Washington Navy Yard. The 34-year-old from Queens, N.Y., was shot to death by police during an exchange of gunfire.

Aside from both incidents occurring in our nation’s capital, the factor that stands out the most is that the offenders suffered from mental health issues. And there apparently were signs displayed prior to these sad events demonstrating that something was amiss.

We’ve seen mass killings happening more frequently over the past few years, and yet we always seem stunned when the next one takes place. It’s common knowledge that far too many people with mental health problems have been walking around undiagnosed and/or untreated.

So why do acts of violence like those that occurred in Washington surprise us? With so many people not getting the help they need for psychological issues, at least a few of them are going to move beyond the brink every now and then. Combine this with the fact that we live in a society that glorifies violence, killings on such a massive and public scale are bound to happen.

We know there are numerous Americans who suffer from mental health problems that could lead to violence. We also know that this is a public safety crisis waiting to happen.

And yet fixing the process through which mental health services are delivered is not on too many people’s agenda. It’s as though we’re experiencing a collective sense of cognitive dissonance, refusing to acknowledge the reality of what we have.

Both the Wall Street Journal and CBS’ “60 Minutes” recently highlighted a horrifying scenario: The largest provider of public mental health services in the United States is Cook County Jail in the Chicago area. The population there has swelled with inmates who have psychological problems, and these illnesses are most likely what’s driving their criminal behavior.

Similar stories are being told throughout the country, including here in Northern New York. How foolish now does it sound for the state to remove inpatient services from the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, the only mental health facility north of the Thruway communities?

Long story short, people with mental health issues wouldn’t be swept up in the criminal justice system at such great numbers if their problems were properly diagnosed and treated. This would relieve a tremendous burden on our prison systems.

And we would see fewer incidents of mass killings if more people who are walking on the edge would get treated. This would make all of us more secure.

Those of us who know people with mental health problems must admit that a catastrophe could be avoided if we worked toward getting them treated. Most people with these issues will never become violent, but no one knows who the next one will be.

The other part of this is that we must have a viable mental health treatment infrastructure so people can get the proper services. Let’s not wait until the next “breaking news” flash to imagine what might have been had we decided to act beforehand.

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