Experts: Close mental health gap in Clark County to prevent tragedies

  • Parker Perry
  • Staff Writer
9:12 a.m. Sunday, March 4, 2018 Crime

The recent school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and a series of guns brought to Clark County schools has once again sparked a national debate about how to prevent such incidents and Clark County mental health experts said a gap exists that prevents many teens from getting the treatment they need.

Adding more mental health resources for teens could stop future tragedies, including in Clark County, local leaders said.

READ: Bill could improve mental health care in Clark County, supporters say

Mental health problems tend to develop during early teen years, Clark County Mental Health and Recovery Board CEO Greta Mayer said, and getting those kids into treatment early can lead to healthy futures as they become adults.

It can also stop teens from making bad choices that could lead to violent outcomes, Mayer said.

“We need to get to young people sooner and get them the services so they don’t make those risky decisions to either use alcohol or drugs or consider suicide and get into that crisis place,” she said.

Ely Serna, the accused suspect in the West Liberty-Salem High School shooting on Jan. 20, 2017, has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and bulimia, a psychiatrist and a psychologist testified during a recent court appearance.

EXTRA: West Liberty school shooting suspect ordered to mental health

Depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder are common for the young patients seen by Dr. U. Rao Vellanki, a Springfield psychiatrist who’s worked with Clark County youth since 1992. But that doesn’t always make them a danger.

Usually those with depression or anxiety tend to want to hurt themselves instead of others, he said, and health-care professionals work to eliminate the stigma attached to mental illness so more people reach out for treatment.

Jerri Jackson, whose son, Matt McQuinn, was murdered during the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting in 2012, said there’s no easy fix to prevent the next massacre.

“I wish I had a magic wand and it would tell me what we could do,” Jackson said.

The families of the 17 people killed during the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting last month will grieve for a long time, she said.

MORE: Local man shot, killed in theater shooting

“I think of these parents who are going to have to bury their children,” Jackson said. “They are going to have to go on this road that I was forced to go on. Everybody is affected. There is a ripple effect, it might affect your family directly but then there are friends and relatives and so on.”

Clark County teen mental health

More than 30 percent of Clark County high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless every day over a two week period, according to a 2015 survey from the Clark County Combined Health District.

The health district is compiling the data of a new survey that was taken by students in 2017, Clark County Health Commissioner Charles Patterson said, but those results haven’t been released.

“Those are stats we are taking a close look at,” Patterson said.

The county created a mental health task force to address gaps in local services, Patterson and Mayer said, and both hope the new survey shows its efforts have reduced the number of students who feel sad or hopeless daily.

The current numbers don’t surprise Vellanki. Some studies show one in five students nationwide likely have some sort of mental health issue, he said.

The Clark County Mental Health and Recovery Board is a local agency that distributes state and local tax dollars to support mental health and combat drug and alcohol addiction.

If the state gave the county additional funding, Mayer said, she would like it to be put toward the mental health of local teens.

MORE: Clark County mental health

“We know that for young people, that early identification part is so critical because most mental health problems start around the age of 14,” Mayer said. “By intervening earlier, we can stave off a lot of the deeper-end problems that people can develop later in life.”

Those deeper problems can be a range of things, Mayer said, including mass shootings. However, more common issues develop later in life like drug addiction, alcoholism and crimes including theft and domestic violence.

The Mental Health and Recovery Board has a budget of about $5.5 million a year, Mayer said, but state dollars have been significantly reduced over the past 10 years. The agency gets about $1.9 million from the state each year, meaning most of the funding that the board gets come from local property taxes.

The Clark County agency currently spends about $388,000 on youth services.

“We hear feedback from community members, child welfare, as well as from our mental health providers as well as families — we hear all the time how hard it is to find a youth mental health bed in the state of Ohio,” Mayer said. “This is an ongoing issue. We don’t have enough prevention in place.”

Representatives at the statehouse are willing to work with local leaders to fill any mental health gaps, Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, said. 

“I know people are concerned about this issue,” he said. “Funding these kinds of things are expensive. But we spend more than two-thirds of our budget doing three things in Ohio: medicating, educating and incarcerating.” 

The state also spends a lot fighting the opioid epidemic, he said, and tending to mental health can help that too.

“A lot of the time drug addiction and mental health are interlinked,” he said.

State Sen. Bob Hackett, R-London, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment for this story.

No inpatient mental health facility exists in Clark County for youth, Mayer said. That’s left a gap in services Mayer would like to see filled soon.

Additionally, about half of all people who have some sort of mental health problem, including depression or anxiety, don’t ever get diagnosed or treated, she said.

“The system is set up so that for someone to get the assistance, they have to be in a crisis,” Mayer said. “Our system is set up not necessarily to do a lot on the prevention end, it’s really designed to meet the needs when the issues are really bubbling up and becoming a problem. If we could fund adequate prevention, then many of those kids would never develop significant mental health problems.”

READ: Is mental health agency a well-kept secret?

Schools provide a lot of services, Mayer said, but they also struggle to balance the need to meet their academic standards and find the time and resources to help students with mental health issues.

“They have mandates and it’s really hard to carve out individual time for kids that could really benefit from it,” she said.

If more schools had the money to hire a school psychiatrist, Vellanki said, that would be a big help.

“The counselors focus more on the educational part and the individual education plans,” Vellanki said. “Having a mental health psychiatrist would be more helpful. The counselors are good, but they don’t have enough time to spend on the mental health issues.”

The American Academy for Pediatrics updated guidelines last week and called for mandatory depression screening for U.S. teens. The academy estimates about two out of every three teens who suffer from a mental disorder don’t get treated.

Reliving the grief

Jackson is taken back to the day she learned about her son’s death whenever she hears news of another mass shooting.

“It’s like everything comes back,” Jackson said. “It brings back all the emotions and feelings when Matt was killed.”

RELATED: Friends, family gather for McQuinn funeral

McQuinn was shot and killed nearly six years ago by James Holmes in a theater while watching “The Dark Knight Rises.” He was killed while protecting his girlfriend from the bullets. Eleven others were killed in the shooting.

McQuinn, who lived in Springfield and Vandalia before moving to Colorado, was 27 years old.

Nothing can make a family feel better after a loved one is stolen from them, Jackson said.

“My heart goes to the survivors (of Parkland) and the emotions that they are going to have,” Jackson said. “Their lives have changed forever.”

Jackson doesn’t believe that mental illness is the sole reason someone decides to commit mass murder but also said she doesn’t believe that banning guns is the answer either.

“I don’t know what the solution is,” she said. “My son grew up learning how to shoot guns with his grandfather. Along with that, he was taught how to respect a gun.”

McQuinn also played a part in teaching his little brother how to shoot and respect a firearm, Jackson said.

“There is a whole lot of different issues here,” she said. “I don’t think it’s all guns, I don’t think it’s just mental health. But I think there needs to be a discussion rather than pointing fingers at each other.”

Avoiding stigmas

It’s rare that someone who suffers from depression or anxiety turns violent, Vellanki said.

“Out of all the shooters, research shows very few have psychiatric issues,” he said. “The remaining people involved in mass killings don’t have any psychiatric issues.”

People are too quick to blame mental illness when a mass murder takes place, Vellanki said.

“We jump and say, ‘Oh, he has a mental health issue. That’s why,’” he said. “It’s interesting that in all the developed countries, the psychiatric problems are the same. But they don’t have as many killings or mass shootings like we have in this country.”

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The problem with jumping to conclusions, Vellanki said, is that it creates a stigma for all people who have a mental health problem. Even today, a lot of people don’t want to be diagnosed, he said.

“It’s easier to accept a physical illness than a mental illness,” Vellanki said. “We were brainwashed for many generations that mental illness is something that is in the mind that you can control.”

One thing Vellanki would like to see more of an emphasis on is stopping bullying, he said. Many of the kids Vellanki sees suffer from some sort of bullying, he said, and that can be dangerous.

The schools, both Springfield City and Clark County schools, are good at responding to him and fixing any issues, Vellanki said. According to the 2015 health district survey, 22 percent of high school students in the county reported being bullied at school.

“Bullying leads to anger inside,” Vellanki said. “We work with coping mechanisms and we contact school counselors.”