By Del McKinney
I watched many hours of coverage regarding the shootings at Virginia Tech. My personal reaction was deep sorrow. It is obvious that the shooter was deeply troubled with delusions of persecution and paranoia. As a mental-health professional who has worked at Community Counseling Center for almost 10 years, I have asked myself, "Could it happen here? Could it have been prevented?"
It is possible that an incident like that could happen here, but the chances are low. The U.S. surgeon general has reported that the likelihood of violence by people with mental illness is low. In fact, "the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small."
It is possible that the incident could have been prevented if the shooter had received proper services. However, there are many barriers to treatment.
Most Southeast Missourian readers probably do not realize how strained the mental health system is in Missouri. For example, the Community Counseling Center serves about 6,000 people per year with 150,000 hours of face-to-face treatment. A large part of the funding comes from Medicaid and the Department of Mental Health.
Unfortunately, client services have been cut back due to a lack of funding. Currently there is a two-month waiting period to see a psychiatrist. Medicaid does not pay for adults to receive counseling services. The center provides as many services as possible to clients who have little ability to pay, but there are limits.
Other state cutbacks have limited the number of psychiatric hospital beds available. Lack of beds makes it more difficult to hospitalize individuals who are a threat to themselves or others. In this environment it is likely that some individuals will fall through the cracks.
Stigma is another barrier to treatment. The Community Counseling Center hoped to build a supervised apartment complex for individuals with mental illness. At the Cape Girardeau Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, opponents feared potential residents would be "wandering the area," with a need for the front door to be "padlocked" at night. Who would want to seek treatment and be described in this way?
Lack of supervised housing is another barrier to treatment. The Cape Girardeau City Council voted down the center's request to build the apartment complex because of the stereotype of the mentally ill as dangerous.
The mentally ill already live in our community. They are our neighbors, friends, co-workers and family. It is tragic that 32 people were killed in Virginia. It is also tragic that lives are wasted because fear, ignorance and a lack of resources prevent individuals from receiving needed mental health services to aid in their recovery.
Del McKinney, Ph.D., is a community psychiatric rehabilitation center supervisor and group home administrator at Community Counseling Center in Cape Girardeau.