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Sandy Hook shooting's glare illumines cracks in mental health care (+video)

Though the mental health of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza is unclear, the massacre has spawned extensive discussion on the mental health care system. That could be helpful or harmful.

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Details about Adam Lanza’s mental health are anecdotal, at best.

Unverified news reports have suggested he may have been diagnosed with a personality disorder and/or with Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism (considered a developmental disorder rather than mental illness).

But at this point, any discussion of whether mental illness played a role in Mr. Lanza’s apparent decision to shoot and kill his mother before shooting and killing 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School is pure speculation.

That hasn’t stopped the discussion, though. And many Americans are pointing to America’s flawed mental health care system – in addition to its gun laws – as a prime area needing attention in the wake of the tragedy.

Such discussion, say psychiatrists and mental-health experts, may be beneficial if it actually leads to increased care and treatment, as well as better funding of treatment programs. But it also runs the risk of further stigmatizing mental illness or reducing civil liberties of the mentally ill, if people start to associate mental illness with violence.

“We need to be proactive, rather than reactive: How do we reach out to families in trouble, and how do they reach out to the mental-health system?” says Michael Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), who believes having mental health care more integrated with the regular health-care system might remove some of the stigma of seeking treatment. “From emergency-room doctors to police to clergy to schools and universities, we all need to be part of that public discussion of how do we get the support and treatment people need to people early enough so we’re not dealing with things at the very end when tragic things happen.”

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