If mental health providers and clients enjoyed the promotional support that anti-smoking advocates receive, it's possible the shootings of two Deer Creek Middle School students might have been avoided. Efforts spent on public awareness of the dangers of smoking cigarettes, as well as the availability of treatment, have been wildly successful. Television and print advertising, radio and Internet blurbs - all constantly reminding us of the health risks of smoking tobacco.
Schizophrenia, by contrast, is a subject not easily dealt with publicly. We are, historically, uncomfortable with the occurrence of severe mental illness in our society. So you're not likely to ever see anything promoting a mental hospital or schizophrenia help line in prime time. Maybe that's OK - there's always the danger of demonizing the sick. It's also true that few of the severely mentally ill become violent to the extent that Bruco Strong Eagle Eastwood allegedly did. It's not awareness of mental illness that seems to be needed as much as awareness of how to get help for it.
I'll bet Bruco Eastwood's father can tell you exactly why we shouldn't smoke. But he had no clue as to how to get help for his mentally deranged son. According to Kirk Mitchell writing in Sunday's Denver Post, the shooter's father "has long believed his son struggled with schizophrenia - but the father felt powerless and financially unable to help".
According to Liz McDonald, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Human Services, the state has about $40 million for mental health services for the indigent such as Eastwood. She points out that there are currently beds available at Fort Logan Mental Health Institute. There may be available beds (she doesn't say anything about number of psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses), but there's apparently little information readily available to the public regarding procedure for getting help for people who need hospitalization. And, there's even less help for family members in ensuring that the patient stays medicated after returning home.
So maybe there are beds available right this very minute at Ft Logan. That doesn't negate the fact that the state is ranked, by the College of Emergency Physicians, 50th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in the number of inpatient psychiatric beds. According to the Emergency Physicians group (as reported by Colleen O'Connor in the Denver Post), Colorado has 11.8 psychiatric beds per 100,000 people as opposed to the national average of 30 beds per 100,000. We Coloradans must either be remarkably healthy and sane, or our mental health programs are grossly underfunded - and under promoted.
The question is, how do family members, struggling with a mentally unstable individual, find appropriate help before a crisis occurs? How do family members, indigent or not, learn how to properly advocate for their afflicted loved ones? "Sometimes the legal system can help," said Carolyn Wolf, a New York attorney who exclusively represents the mentally ill. "It takes creative planning and thinking outside the box." You've got to be kidding me! I don't have to think outside of the box to get help for an asthma attack - why should I have to get creative when my kid starts hearing voices?
We can be thankful that the two young people who were victims of this shooting will fully recover. And, if Bruco Strong Eagle Eastwood is convicted of attempted first degree murder (as charged) he will pay for his crime by serving a very long prison sentence. If psychiatric evaluations show him to be mentally ill, he'll serve his time at CMHIP in Pueblo. Then, we can all forget about the whole thing. Until next time.