It's not yet known if the 20-year-old man who murdered his mother, then gunned down 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school was suffering from mental illness, but the tragic incident has sparked a national debate over the quality of psychiatric care in the United States. A coalition of prominent mental health experts is asking President Obama and members of Congress to take immediate action to support nationwide improvements in mental health programs.
In recent years, the U.S. has been racked by a number of mass shootings.
In Tuscon in 2011, Jared Loughner opened fire outside a grocery store, killing six people, injuring 13. Then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was among the injured.
Last July, 12 people were shot and killed in a Colorado movie theater. Dozens were wounded.
Mass killings have taken place in California, Wisconsin, Washington state and Minnesota. After each shooting, those who knew the killers spoke about their expressions of anger, their feelings of isolation, strange behavior or mental illness.
But after the murder of six- and seven-year-olds in Connecticut, many Americans, including President Obama, have called for a review of the U.S. mental health system.
A coalition of mental health and substance abuse experts has written a letter to the president and Congress requesting immediate health policy reforms and new safeguards against random acts of violence.
Psychologist Ron Manderscheid, with the National Association of Counties, leads the coalition. "Only about a third of the people who actually have a mental illness get any care," he noted. "Only 10 percent of people with substance abuse conditions ever get any care."
The letter calls for doubling the capacity of public mental health and substance abuse programs, whose budgets have been sharply cut in recent years.
It calls for strengthening programs that promote mental health, training teachers and others to recognize signs of mental illness, and providing early help to those who display signs of mental illness.
"What we’ve learned in mental health is that mental health is not only about people with mental illness," Manderscheid stated. "We’ve taken a much broader perspective here that mental health is not only about the community, but about the community and your family and how these things function for you."
The letter also calls for a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles and large-capacity ammunition clips.
"We think it’s important that we take a position on this and not simply talk about mental health and substance abuse because we view the assault weapons as being a public health problem in the community," explained Manderscheid.
Many gun dealers say sales have spiked in the past few days.
Experts note that people with mental illness are more likely to be the victim of a crime than to commit one. They say the first step toward providing better mental health care in the country is removing the stigma from having a mental illness.