One of the most powerful moments during President Obama's speech at the memorial service for the Tucson victims came toward the end, when he spoke about nine-year-old victim Christina Taylor Green.
Christina, the president explained, was at Rep. Gabrielle Gifford's "Congress in Action" event on January 8 because she was drawn to public service.
"I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it," President Obama said. "I want America to be as good as she imagined it."
As a nation, we've been called to achieve our fullest potential many times before. Like millions of Americans, I completely agree that Christina and the other victims of the Tuscon shooting will be honored if this tragedy enables us to come together and look beyond our political disagreements.
But I believe that some Americans, specifically individuals and families who are challenged by mental illness, also deserve a country as noble and promising as the America of Christina Taylor Green.
The alleged Tucson shooter appears to have struggled with psychological issues for several years without getting help. News reports have emerged which indicate that several students and teachers were deeply concerned about his behavior. It is unclear whether steps could have been taken to prevent the events of January 8.
However, we cannot allow this tragedy to reinforce the public's false perception that people with mental illness are dangerous because this intensifies the stigma of mental illness. As a result, people with mental illness are less likely to seek and get access to treatment, families are more likely to try to protect and hide their family members with mental illness, and funding for community mental health services is not seen as a priority.
The truth of the matter is that most people with mental illness are not violent.
As studies have proven, the victims of mental illness are much more likely themselves to be victimized by violent crime, not to be the perpetrators of them.
Let's remember what President Obama told the nation last week at the memorial service: "We have to be better," he said.
He's right. We have to offer people with mental illness renewed hope and understanding. We need outreach and public education about mental illness, about the availability and effectiveness of treatment, and about where people can turn for help. This outreach and education must take place in our communities -- our schools, our colleges and universities, our community centers, our religious institutions, our senior centers, and other trusted places where people are likely to go for other reasons.
For instance, if you or someone you know is in distress, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK/8255) offers immediate access to a qualified mental health professional who can help and share resources available in your community.
And if you want to know what to do to help someone in distress, training is available. Mental Health First Aid, an evidenced-based public education model, trains individuals to identify and assess when someone with a mental illness may be experiencing a problem or crisis, know how to intervene, and provide support until appropriate help is available. The National Council for Community Behavioral Health care and MHA-NYC are sponsoring this training in New York City from March 14-18, 2011. For more information, visit www.MentalHealthFirstAid.org.
In addition, we need better access to effective community based treatment services to prevent thousands of people from falling through the cracks in our health care system.
We need to increase education and employment opportunities, housing, peer support and opportunities for people with serious mental illness to engage in their communities so they can have meaningful, satisfying lives.
We need ongoing research that seeks breakthroughs in knowledge and treatment. We need increased funding of our mental health system and financing structures that allow people to get the help they need.
Health care reform addresses some of these issues by improving coverage and access to mental health treatment, promoting the integration of physical and mental health services, encouraging prevention, and fostering a trained mental health workforce. Health care reform does not provide all the answers, but it is an important step in the right direction of realizing Christina Taylor Green's vision.
Nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green had a beautiful dream about the future of our country. As we celebrate her vision, let's make sure that "a better America" is committed to solving the needs of every member of our community, including those who are currently left behind.
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