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Newtown and the Nation's Mental Health

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As President Obama opened his December 16 Newtown speech at the vigil for the Sandy Hook shooting victims with the statement, "We gather here in memory of 20 beautiful children and six remarkable adults. They lost their lives in a school that could have been any school, in a quiet town full of good and decent people that could be any town in America," I think the whole country was asking the same question: Why did this happen? There are many theories and opinions being expressed to address this question, all of which are just speculation until the results of the investigation become known. As a researcher, educator, and president of a nonprofit health-care organization I would like to add my thoughts to the mix.

There have been 29 mass shootings in the United States between the events of April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School and the Dec. 14, 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I propose these shootings were, in part, a health-care issue.

Your immediate response may be to ask how these shootings could possibly be related to issues surrounding health care. Let me provide a few facts for consideration. The Nov. 16, 2011 issue of Time magazine included a report that 1 in 5 American adults take mental health drugs, which was a 22 percent rise since 2001. A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study has indicated that the number of children diagnosed with different forms of attention/hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) was 9.5 percent, or 5.4 million children 5-13 years of age. As of 2007, parents of more than 3 million children ages 4-17 years who had a diagnosis of ADHD reported that their child was receiving medication for the disorder. Children with these diagnoses were found in the same report to be more likely to have other chronic health conditions, both physical and mental. A recent report on the global burden of disease in the Dec. 15, 2012 issue of the internationally-recognized medical journal The Lancet indicated that mental health problems in people of all ages are one of three most rapidly increasing areas of health concern in the world.

I remember back in the early 1980s, a time when there was greater funding for community mental health centers, that the mental health professionals working in these facilities were very concerned that the number of people needing to be cared for was increasing, but the budgetary allotment for these centers was decreasing. Since the 1980s, there have been significant cuts in the funding for mental health intervention. Professionals working in the field of mental health have seen a decimation of community mental health services. A 2011 report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness titled "State Mental Health Cuts: A National Crisis" indicates that the nation is challenged with increasing needs for mental health treatment while at the same time the funding for community mental health treatment and consultation has been continually reduced.

It would be a reach to connect the Sandy Hook shootings directly to either a change in the prevalence of mental health issues in children or the reduction in funding for -- or emphasis on -- their comprehensive treatment, but shouldn't this potential connection at least be in the discussion about prevention? Certainly many variables relate to the enigma of how a person becomes a killer without human consciousness, but one of the recurrent themes that follows each shooting episode is the discussion about the mental health of the perpetrator. Could it be that these shooters represent a horrible kind of "yellow canary" of the declining mental health of our society at large? If so, then shouldn't we be engaged in a serious national dialogue about how to curb this national epidemic, just as we have done with the war on cancer, or the reduction of risk to heart disease through proper lifestyle, diet and exercise?

This is not just an academic issue. Mental health derives from physical health, and vice versa. Our bodies and minds are interconnected. We know that dementia is more common in people who suffer from obesity and diabetes. We know that depression is more prevalent in people with nutritional deficiencies such as vitamin B3, where one of the signs of deficiency of this vitamin is dementia. We know that behavior problems in children may be more common in children who consume large amounts of empty-calorie foods. Conversely, we know that children who engage in regular physical activity are more emotionally resilient and alert. As the health of our children has declined with increasing obesity and chronic illnesses, it is interesting that the prevalence of mental health issues in kids has increased. It is the same with their parents. There is a strong association between obesity, poor lifestyle habits, and mental and physical health issues in both adults and children. I recognize that association of two factors doesn't necessarily prove that one causes the other, but as the research accumulates there is a stronger case for a cause-and-effect relationship between health of the body and health of the mind.

Given this suggestion, it raises the question as to what the effects are of children sitting before a computer screen or television many hours a day being bombarded by messages of war, crime, violence, and killing. Not only are their minds being imprinted by the message, but their bodies are responding to the stress of the emotion, all while being sedentary and likely eating foods and drinking beverages that are rich in empty calories.

Like every other American who wears some of the grief of the Newtown shootings, I would like to find answers to the question "why?" and to accomplish what President Obama has challenged the country to do, which is to care for our children. As he said, "It is our first job. If we don't get this right, we don't get anything right. This is how our society will be judged."

Where can we turn as individuals to meet his challenge? It might start with a serious discussion at the national level as to what is happening to the health of our children, how their habits and lifestyles contribute to their declining health, and what needs to be done to create the country that turns around the trend of declining mental and physical health of its children. Through this difficult discussion, I believe some important answers will emerge that may not only help to prevent other Newtown catastrophes, but also prevent countless cases of unnecessary diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney and liver diseases and mental health disorders.

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