Mental health is complex issue for state's Sandy Hook panel

Hartford — The mental health status of Adam Lanza, who murdered 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, will not be public information anytime soon, said Danbury Assistant State’s Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky at the governor’s first Sandy Hook Advisory Commission meeting on Thursday.

But the commission is tasked with providing advice on mental health, gun control and school safety to the governor by March 15.

“It may be challenging, but I think we have enough information to still make credible public policy evaluations,” said Scott Jackson, commission chairman and mayor of Hamden.

School safety and gun control will likely be addressed early on, he said. Mental health issues, however, are more complex and will require more time. But this complexity didn’t stop multiple commission members from questioning experts from Columbine High School and Virginia Tech about how they addressed mental illness in the wake of the shootings there.

Outpatient commitment, in which someone living in the community is required to seek treatment, was discussed along with stronger mental health checks during gun background checks.

Richard Bonnie, director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, answered many commission members’ questions about how outpatient commitment, known as “mandatory outpatient treatment” in Virginia, worked. Connecticut is one of six states in the country that do not have any type of outpatient commitment.

Bonnie was also a former member of the Virginia Tech Review Panel, which was formed after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting where 32 people were murdered.

The shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, had actually been assigned to “mandatory outpatient treatment” before the shooting.

“As you know and probably everybody knows, there was no follow-up, and Cho never really reported to the counseling center at (Virginia) Tech, and that was one of the missed opportunities to intervene,” Bonnie said.

Another problem besides lack of enforcement is lack of funding, he said.

“The issue is, you have to have resources,” he said, adding later, “You can’t successfully implement mandatory outpatient treatment unless you begin to work on the gaps in the services system.”

Commission member Kathleen M. Flaherty, staff attorney for Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut, said she spoke out in opposition of outpatient commitment when a bill for it came up last year.

Flaherty said she brought to the panel personal experience of living with bipolar disorder.

She said she would rather see the state look at advanced directives, which means people are encouraged to seek out treatment on their own instead of being pushed into treatment. It would be similar to a living will, she said. People would list what type of medication they were willing to take and treatment they were willing to receive, she said.

“I don’t know how they think forcing people into mandatory treatment, when they can’t serve people who voluntarily seek help, will work,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how that plays out.”

Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who also was a member of the Columbine Review Commission, repeatedly mentioned the intersection of mental illness and guns at the meeting Thursday. Thirteen people died in the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.

“I think mental health background checks as part of gun background checks should be strengthened across the country at a minimum,” Ritter said.

Flaherty said she didn’t have a problem with background checks, but that there are times when the two issues — mental health and gun control — are separate.

“Sometimes, people who are violent do have a mental illness diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean that every person is,” she said. Labeling everyone with a mental illness as violent is stigmatizing and discriminating, she said.

The state needs a health system that makes mental health services accessible and de-stigmatizes mental illness, Flaherty said.

j.somers@theday.com

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