Reform of mental health care is direly needed

mental health careBy Kevin Canessa Jr.

A few weeks from now, it will have been 17 years since two teenage boys walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and killed 13 people while injuring 20-plus others … and then took their own lives.

It was April 20, 1999, a day remembered every time there’s yet another school shooting anywhere in the U.S.

And without fail, every time there’s another mass shooting, attention turns to gun control. And each time, nothing ever seems to change.

That’s because attention isn’t paid to the right issue.

What is not discussed enough — and it needs to be, now — is the need for more efficient mental-health programs in this country.

Far too many people don’t see that mental illness is just that — an illness. In many cases of mass shootings, we find out — when all is said and done — the perpetrators had some kind of mental illness, whether it’s bipolar-mania, severe biological depression, schizophrenia, you name it.

I remember the first time it hit me that I had depression. I had no idea why for days on end, when I woke up, in the ninth-grade, I was so sluggish I couldn’t get out of bed. I hadn’t experienced anything traumatic beforehand. My home life was fine. And yet, when the alarm buzzed at 6:15 a.m., all I wanted to do was go back to sleep.

I was only 14 and the emotional pain was intolerable, incomprehensible.

It was 1989, an era when there wasn’t much that could be done. The thought of telling anyone about these feelings of sadness was the furthest from my mind and frankly, out of the question. So as so many did back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I just sucked it up, knowing that at one point or another, it would eventually go away.

It always did.

It could last weeks. Sometimes, months on end. But eventually, often out of nowhere, there’d be a day I’d wake up and would suddenly feel better, I’d be stronger — and that terrible feeling of hopelessness and sadness would be gone.

But it always came back.

For whatever reason, the depression disappeared from 1993 to 1997 [my undergrad years]. But it came back in a big way in 1999 — and this time, it was worse than ever. Like before, it would come and go, and I dealt with it the best I could. But it was still very hard to get up, only now it was to go to work. Staying in bed was not an option.

But this was a different era. People talked about depression in the early- to mid-2000s. There were plenty of TV commercials for anti-depressant medications. This time, despite being told I was wrong for doing so by many, I went to a doctor in 2003 — and have not had a bout with serious depression since.

My medication [Cymbalta] saved my life. Others I tried didn’t work. Each person reacts differently to the anti-depression meds. I find no shame in saying that for 13 years, while there have been times I was sad, it’s never gotten the way it did in high school.

So why share this story?

There was never a time I thought of picking up a weapon and hurting myself or others. But far too often in this country, when people get depressed — or suffer from any mental illness — one of two things usually happen: The affected either take a gun and hurt themselves or others.

In many of the mass-shooting incidents in America, things could have been a lot different if people knew more about the help available for the mentally ill. Whether it’s therapy, medication, a combination of both — or something else — there are ways for the mentally ill to get better — and to not have to resort to pulling a gun and shooting innocent people … or for taking a gun in putting it in their own mouths and pulling the trigger.

When I think of the people who used to tell me to “just suck it up — you don’t need medication” — it irks me to no end. Because the truth is, far too often, mental illness lasts a lifetime and if it isn’t properly treated, it will likely lead to something awful.

I often wonder what might have happened if I never treated my depression. Would I have eventually had suicidal thoughts? Could I have snapped at someone? I’m very happy the day will never come where I’ll know that answer.

What I do know, however, is that the stigma that comes along with mental illness in the United States shouldn’t exist. As a nation, we haven’t done enough to help the mentally ill. The states have failed, too.

It’s partly because every time someone commits mass homicide, we go back to the weapons, not mental healthcare.

In the last 20 years, I’ve only heard one politician address this — Gov. Chris Christie — and unfortunately, it was mostly empty rhetoric.

I hope the day comes soon — it has to — when we see massive changes to how we deal with the mentally ill in America. We have the resources. We just don’t have anyone [in authority] willing to take the steps necessary to make changes.

And until we do, we’ll continue to reference April 20, 1999 — and the teens who killed other teens that day in Littleton. That’s the biggest shame of all. But maybe one day things will change and we’ll truly focus more on the need to help the mentally ill.

Sadly, however, I won’t be holding my breath waiting.

Fundraiser for Washington Ave. fire victims

  • A fundraiser is planned to help the victims of fire on Washington Ave., Kearny, last month. On Sunday, April 10, at the LCCC, 6 Davis Ave., the proceeds from a spaghetti dinner will go to the victims, a teacher and her son, who lost everything in the fire. There are two seatings — 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., and the menu includes salad, spaghetti, meatballs, bread and homemade desserts.

Tickets are available online at bit.ly/washavefire — and are $16.37 for adults and $11.24 for senior citizens and children. If you can’t make it, you can also donate at this site.

Also, the entire night is being run by volunteers, so if you’d like to help, visit bit.ly/volunteerwashavefire to sign up.

It’s truly remarkable how this community always comes together when one of its own is in need. Great job by Melanie Pasquarelli, who is planning the event.