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September 18, 2013 / WRAG

Have we had enough? Philanthropy can lead the charge to reform mental health care.

By Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

I’ve been listening to the discussion since the tragedy at the Navy Yard earlier this week. The conversation seems to have transitioned to one focused on how Aaron Alexis secured a “secret” level clearance from the federal government. Certainly, it is important to delve into that question. For me, however, the larger question is, how can we continue to ignore the multiple signals often given by people who need mental health care? By all accounts, Aaron Alexis was almost begging for help.

Decades ago, we determined that people diagnosed with a mental illness were being warehoused in mental health hospitals across the country. They were not being helped. There was a huge public outcry for deinstitutionalization. Those pleas were heard, but nothing seems to have replaced the inadequate system that we had.

I know that community mental health facilities exist. I suspect that their staffs are small and the demand is great. I also know that there has been a growing demand over the years for privacy regarding one’s health status. It seems that both factors, and many others I’m sure, are hampering our ability to respond to cries for help.

We mourn the victims of the shootings at the Navy Yard, Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Aurora movie theater, the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, Fort Hood, the Gabrielle Giffords meet-and-greet – the list could go on and on. Mass shootings have become an all too common occurrence in our country, but we still haven’t grappled with the underlying problems. We address the aftermath, but not the root causes. Are we accepting these occurrences simply as a part of our new normal?

Are concerns about the protection of privacy of individuals overriding our need to protect our citizens? Is mental health such a taboo subject that we cannot discuss how to treat people with psychoses? I don’t know the answers, but I do know some of the questions. Have we had enough? Is it time for us to act?

Years ago, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation led the effort to look at smoking’s impact on Americans and do something about it. This was a topic that many thought couldn’t be touched. I believe that it is time for another foundation to do what foundations are well positioned to do: be the catalyst for change.

Mental health care in America is calling out for reform. Who will lead the conversation? Who will advocate for action?

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