Like many Kansans, Rick Cagan spent much of last weekend reading and listening to news reports about the gunman who killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Cagan had a professional reason for learning what he could about the tragedy. He runs the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Kansas Chapter office in Topeka.
“It’s devastating,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
According to initial news reports, the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, may have suffered from a personality disorder or had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, a form of autism. However, there is no indication that he had the kind of severe mental illness suffered by others responsible for mass shootings.
Jared Loughner, the man convicted of shooting former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killing six others, for instance, suffered from schizophrenia, a mental illness that causes disordered thinking and delusions.
And James Holmes, the man accused of shooting 12 people to death and wounding 58 others last summer at a movie theater in a Denver sought mental health treatment before the attack, according to multiple news reports.
Mass shootings nearly always rekindle debates about gun control and the adequacy of the nation’s mental health system. Commenting on the later, Cagan said many Kansans with mental illness are not getting the early treatment they need to avoid crises.
“More than 60 percent of the adults who have a serious mental illness are untreated,” he said, noting that in Kansas half the admissions to the state hospitals for the mentally ill involve people who’ve had no previous contact with their community’s mental health center.
In Kansas, state-hospital admissions are reserved for adults who are seriously mentally ill and have been deemed a danger to themselves or others.
“NAMI is always reluctant to jump in with some sort of comment when these kinds of incidents occur because there’s so much that we don’t know,” Cagan said, referring to the shootings. “But, still, blaming the individual only goes so far. At some point, we have to look at the overall well-being of our mental health system.”
Budget cuts in the mental health system
Kansas’ system, he said, hasn’t fared well in recent years.
“I don’t like saying this,” Cagan said, “but we’re just lucky this didn’t happen in Kansas.”