After the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., every community is looking for answers. The truth is we will never have a full understanding of what motivated a young man to violence and then to take his own life. We also don't know what will be different in the aftermath of this tragedy as compared to all the others.
When the news fades away, will we simply go on as before? In the last 18 years, 70 schools across the country have experienced shootings on campus. Our own community had a near miss. Several years ago, Manatee Glens admitted to our crisis center three youngsters with a shotgun and a plan to shoot up their high school.
What could be different after Newtown? Could we support our local schools and mental health agencies in screening elementary, middle and high school students for mental illness? Could we fund treatment so it is available to families who need it? Could we enforce equal coverage of mental illness by health insurance companies? Could we learn how to recognize and apply first aid in a mental health crisis?
The American Academy of Pediatrics says one out of five children and adolescents experience mental health conditions. The sad and shameful reality reported by the academy is that most -- 70 percent -- go without identification or treatment.
Screening elementary, middle and high school students for behavioral health opens the door for prevention and treatment. If we prevent and treat at earlier ages, we could reverse the incidence of serious mental illness in our own community now and forever.
In the recession we lost billions in mental health services and now we are paying the price. After the federal fiscal cliff, there could be another 8 percent reduction in mental health funding.
Shockingly, our state spends less than every state in the union except Texas on mental health. On average, states spend about $120 per resident while Florida spends less than $40. If our legislators bring Florida to the national average, more families could have the help they need for a mentally ill loved one.
In 2008, Congress passed the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act requiring insurance companies to cover mental health and addiction equal to other medical disorders. But four years later, Florida has yet to adopt the rules that would allow our state regulators to enforce the law. If we contact our insurance commissioner and legislators, we could insist that these rules be adopted in our state.
Any member of the public can become certified in Mental Health First Aid, which is 12-hour course that trains in the warning signs and first aid response to suicidal thoughts, hallucinations or other symptoms.
Upcoming courses are posted at mentalhealthfirstaid.org. If more of us take the course, we could know how to help a friend or loved one in a mental health crisis.
Things could be different this time. Or things could go on as before. This time it's up to you and me to make that difference.
Mary Ruiz, is president/CEO of Manatee Glens, the specialty hospital and outpatient practice for mental health and addictions in Bradenton.