One of the outcomes of December’s tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School is a renewed interest in addressing behavioral health problems. While the state of Connecticut has yet to release information about the shooter’s mental state, it is clear that he suffered from a mental health breakdown. Half to two-thirds of spree shooters, like Adam Lanza, were formally diagnosed, hospitalized, or had shown rage, aggression, paranoia and/or delusional thinking prior to their attack.
Yet, horrific acts like that at Sandy Hook don’t mean that people with mental health problems are more likely to be violent. In fact, experts argue that people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.
Few people realize how commonplace mental health problems are in the United States. It is estimated that approximately one in four adults and one in five children will be challenged with an identifiable behavioral health disorder every year. This has a wide and negative influence on our society, whether socially, economically, or physically. For example, people with a serious mental illness die on average 25 years earlier than the general population from largely treatable physical illnesses.
Georgia is not immune to these problems. And like most other states, it lacks the adequate resources to fix it. The National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2009 graded Georgia as a “D” for its treatment of mental health problems. Also in 2009, Georgia spent only $42.60 per capita for mental health spending vs. a US average of $122.90. Recent closings of Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital in Rome and adult mental health services at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville have mentally ill patients scrambling for care. In the past two years, new efforts are being made to fill the gaps but not nearly fast enough to meet the demand.
New legislation around the country is being introduced to improve the treatment of mentally ill patients. In the Senate today, for example, there is a proposed bill that allows community mental health centers to bill Medicaid and private insurers for mental health treatment (as done with physical health services). Closer to home, Governor Nathan Deal is proposing procedural changes that ensure that state agencies are checking mental-health records of people seeking gun permits.
One solution that is very promising is tele-psychotherapy. I have written blog posts in the past on the value that telemedicine—technologies that provide care at a distance through telephone and internet—has in improving diagnoses and speeding treatment. In this case, tele-psychotherapy can have a profound impact on the industry and health of the mentally ill population (such as increasing physician bandwidth, decreasing healthcare costs, improving patient access), without sacrificing quality. Research shows no difference in the level of care provided for mental problems between telemedicine and in-person consultations.
Lack of adequate mental services continues to be a real problem in the country and in Georgia. We can’t sit on the sidelines and ignore the problem. The state would be well advised to find new avenues for expanding mental health services. Telemedicine is an easy and effective way to do it.