- Policy & Research
- About KHI
Dec. 17, 2012
TOPEKA Like many Kansans, Rick Cagan spent much of last weekend reading and listening to news reports about the gunman who killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Cagan had a professional reason for learning what he could about the tragedy. He runs the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Kansas Chapter office in Topeka.
“It’s devastating,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
According to initial news reports, the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, may have suffered from a personality disorder or had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, a form of autism. However, there is no indication that he had the kind of severe mental illness suffered by others responsible for mass shootings.
Jared Loughner, the man convicted of shooting former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killing six others, for instance, suffered from schizophrenia, a mental illness that causes disordered thinking and delusions.
And James Holmes, the man accused of shooting 12 people to death and wounding 58 others last summer at a movie theater in a Denver sought mental health treatment before the attack, according to multiple news reports.
Mass shootings nearly always rekindle debates about gun control and the adequacy of the nation’s mental health system. Commenting on the later, Cagan said many Kansans with mental illness are not getting the early treatment they need to avoid crises.
“More than 60 percent of the adults who have a serious mental illness are untreated,” he said, noting that in Kansas half the admissions to the state hospitals for the mentally ill involve people who’ve had no previous contact with their community’s mental health center.
In Kansas, state-hospital admissions are reserved for adults who are seriously mentally ill and have been deemed a danger to themselves or others.
“NAMI is always reluctant to jump in with some sort of comment when these kinds of incidents occur because there’s so much that we don’t know,” Cagan said, referring to the shootings. “But, still, blaming the individual only goes so far. At some point, we have to look at the overall well-being of our mental health system.”
Kansas’ system, he said, hasn’t fared well in recent years.
“I don’t like saying this,” Cagan said, “but we’re just lucky this didn’t happen in Kansas.”
In recent years, lawmakers, in response to declining revenues and a stalled economy, have cut community mental health center budgets by tens of millions of dollars.
“At a time when we should be increasing access to treatment, we’ve been reducing that access,” Cagan said. “But it’s like what we’ve been telling legislators: The problem isn’t going to go away. Mental illness knows no boundaries."
Michael Wasmer, who lives in Olathe and has an autistic child, bristled at reporters’ drawing a connection between autism and the shootings.
“I have yet to see it confirmed that he was (autistic), but even if he was, there’s absolutely no correlation between autism and planned violence,” he said. “Autism did not cause this horror.”
Wasmer, a past president of the Kansas Coalition for Autism, said it’s both “irresponsible and dangerous” to imply that because a person is autistic they’re somehow inclined to commit heinous acts.
“We risk stigmatizing and even endangering many innocent people,” he said.
Barb Andres has spent the past 20 years working with mentally ill adults and their families. She runs Episcopal Social Services and Breakthrough Club, Wichita-based programs for the homeless and mentally ill, respectively.
“I’d like to say that something positive will come out of this,” she said, referring to the shootings. “But I can’t say that I’m all that optimistic because this is a very complicated, very painful discussion for us to have. I mean, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.”
The public, Andres said, would be well-served to read a blog post by Liza Long of Boise, Mont., who has a 13-year-old son who is mentally ill and violent.
“It’s the best thing I’ve read so far,” Andres said. “If you want to know what these families (of the severely mentally ill) are going through, you should read it.”
“My fear in all this is that one of the big things that’s going to come out of this is a stigma that’s going to blast a lot of people, whether they happen to be violent or not,” she said. “It’ll be a lot of ignorance, fear, and anger. That’s not good, especially when it’s combined with loneliness.”
The KHI News Service is an editorially independent initiative of the Kansas Health Institute and is committed to timely, objective and in-depth coverage of health issues and the policy making environment. Find more about the News Service at khi.org/newsservice or contact us at (785) 783-2529.