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Newtown, Conn. shooting sparks conversation on mental health - abc27 WHTM

Newtown, Conn. shooting sparks conversation on mental health

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) -

While the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. has sparked conversation about gun control, it also has people talking about mental illness.

We may never know why Adam Lanza opened fire and killed 20 children and six adults, but experts say that making sure the mentally ill are getting help could prevent a tragedy like this from happening again.

"We know about one in five children each year, and close to that number of adults, will have a little to large mental healthcare need," said Connell O'Brien of the Pennsylvania Community Providers Association.

In Pennsylvania, it's projected that more than 650,000 people will receive mental health services this year. The total budget to help those in a need is a little more than $944 million. That budget has been cut over the past several years -- and experts say that while there are resources out there to help people, access to them can be the biggest issue.

"We have spent less money every year on mental health," said Senator Pat Vance (R-Cumberland, York), chair of the Health and Welfare Committee.

Vance said her committee has tried to address the issue of children with mental illnesses who  feel they don't need to take medication once they become adults.

"We thought about trying to give parents of adult children some kind of power," Vance said. "But how do you determine someone is mentally ill? And are you taking their rights away? ... It's not an easy answer."

Representative Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster) says access to services needs to be better, particularly for people with medical assistance.

"In most cases, people that have mental illnesses are not your top wage earner and are on public healthcare ... and that access is not what it should be."

O'Brien say gaps in the system, such as screening for mental illness, need to be filled.

"Research is very, very clear that the sooner we can identify any kind of healthcare need, including mental healthcare, the sooner we can begin to provide services the better."

And this prevention can save lives, said Stephen Drachler, executive director of the United Methodist Advocacy in Pennsylvania.

"Every death you can prevent, every person that is mentally ill to the extreme that they want to go out and shoot somebody,  [if] you can identify that you can get help in monitoring ... that saves lives."

Drachler, Vance, O'Brien and Sturla each said the community should take this opportunity to learn more about and understand mental illness.

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