12/17/2012 01:19 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Free Mental Health Services Now

We never hear from them or of them. They get no reward for their efforts. They would never come forward to brag. If they did, they'd be shunned, perhaps arrested. None would dare call them heroes. I would. They are people with mental illness who act against the urges to do harm. They do exist. Everyday, untold, unsung numbers of them save us from themselves, with no help from us.

And yet, they should get help. Free help. 24/7. The only thing keeping this from being so is prejudice against the mentally ill. If the tragedy in Connecticut spurs the reform of gun laws, that would be a small blessing. But just as important is the change that should happen before a potential killer picks up his gun.

Even free-market libertarians need no more demonstration that mental illness, like the personality disorder that Adam Lanza may have suffered from, is not a self-contained ailment like cancer or a broken leg. One person's mental instability is a threat to countless others. Don't believe in universal health care? That's fine. You have your reasons, your numbers, your ideology. But no one argues the need for fire departments. No one argues the need for police, for EMTs, for the military, the FBI, for all those government-run, socialist institutions that we've built around us to protect us from common threats.

So, why don't we make reaching for a phone an easier option than reaching for a gun? The problem is we tend to conflate people afflicted with antisocial compulsions with having already acted on them, and so we're not quick to give these people "free" anything, as though struggling to overcome oneself were a joy-ride. We have a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to serve people who want to do harm to themselves. Why not a national program for people who want to harm our children?

Naturally, a psychopath will not avail himself of a way out of doing what he intends to do. But not all killers are psychopaths. "Seung-Hui Cho, who shot up Virginia Tech, was delusionally insane; Dylan Klebold, at Columbine, was deeply depressed," writes Dave Cullen, author of Columbine. "Most depressive kids want help, they will tell adults... the two adults they won't tell are their mom and their dad." Giving young, clinically depressed people with violent thoughts a place to anonymously vent them is not a futile endeavor. Cho had even at one point checked himself in for a psych evaluation.

According to a recent survey by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the leading reason that people with mental health issues don't seek treatment is cost. What is the cost benefit of not funding resources for drug addicts, the mentally ill, etc. versus the cost they exact on our society?

And this is not just about people with violent urges. The Jerry Sandusky case showed us child rape as a ubiquitous threat. And yet child rape is preventable, but we don't take steps toward prevention for the same reasons. There are many people with pedophilic impulses who do not act on them. A pedophile is not by definition a child molester. Many keep themselves far from children -- some even moving to countries with free resources -- to avoid ever acting out. Columnist Dan Savage, who hears from these anonymous people all the time, gives them credit: "Someone who is burdened with an attraction to children -- no one chooses to be sexually attracted to children -- and successfully battled that attraction all of his adult life deserves credit for his strength, self-control, and moral sense." He even has a name for them -- Gold Star Pedophiles.

They could do with some help. Other countries have created programs for pedophiles. Germany has Prevention Project Dunkelfeld, which includes a hospital-based clinic and anonymous hotlines that people who are attracted to children can call when they need to talk to someone. In Canada, there's the Circles of Support and Accountability -- groups of volunteers who provide assistance and social support and who, in turn, receive support and supervision from professionals. (Unfortunately, Canada funds these programs only for people who have committed a sexual offense.)

Sadly, in the United States, we've made it harder for pedophiles to get the support they need to avoid offending:

"One of the recent regulations in the United States is mandatory reporting," said Dr. James Cantor, psychologist and associate professor at the University of Toronto. "These regulations vary by region, but in general, if a client has children or provides care to children and admits to experiencing sexual attraction to children -- any children -- the therapist is required to report the client to the authorities, regardless of whether any abuse was actually occurring."

"The goal is to protect children, of course," Savage writes, "but broad mandatory reporting policies have an unintended consequence: People who need help to avoid acting on their attraction to children -- are cut off from mental health professionals who can give them the tools, insight, and support they need. Mandatory reporting policies, designed to protect children, may be making children less safe."

Mental health is an issue of national security. Addressing the needs of our national consciousness is an action that can be taken along with reforming our nation's gun laws. For our children's sake. It is as important.

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