The Dec. 14 tragedy in Newtown, Conn. opened a dialogue in Inyo County and across the country. How safe are local schools? How can a young man be so critically broken and go without real help? Should the nation restrict assault weapons or arm our teachers?
The gun debate will not be solved in the Owens Valley, but county educators, mental health specialists and law enforcement came together at the Inyo Office of Education to begin what County Superintendent of Schools Terry McAteer called “an uncomfortable conversation.”
The following is the first of a two-part series dealing with those issues that can be dealt with in Inyo County.
Director of Behavioral Health for Inyo County Dr. Gail Zwier started a dialogue on mental health Jan. 7 with a forum held at the Inyo Council for the Arts in Bishop.
While she told the group that the idea of the forum was “brought to mind by the tragedy at Sandy Hook,” it was more to talk about mental illness and, in the process, remove the stigma attached to it.
Drawing a wide distinction between mental illness, an issue that effects 25 percent of the population, and the kind of madness that results in mass murder, Zwier said the response of a group of mentally ill people when asked about Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, matched the reaction of the rest of the nation: “that guy had to be nuts.”
“Communities are often activated to fear,” Zwier said of mental health issues. “We need to be activated to help. This could be the tipping point. In a small community, we have the opportunity to change the course.”
Zwier’s message was one of understanding, compassion, early intervention and treatment. In the school safety meeting, Zwier pointed out that it was much better to identify behavioral issues in pre-school and resolve them within the family than identifying the issue “at the postmortem.”
As for violence and mental illness, Zwier said there is a slight statistical, as opposed to causal, relationship between the two. But, the severely mentally ill are 14 times more likely to be the victim of violence. “Incidents of violence by the mentally ill are more focused on the family, the caregiver or themselves,” she said. “Aggressive statements are more often protective, a way to keep people away, not necessarily aggressive behavior.”
Zwier’s definition of a mental disorder is simple: internal thinking is disrupted and daily life is impacted. More than 18 percent of the population suffers from an anxiety disorder, at one end of the spectrum of severity and 1.1 percent are diagnosed with schizophrenia, 2.6 percent with a bi-polar disorder. All are treatable, though with the more severe forms of illness, the treatment can be complicated, according to Zwier.
“Schizophrenia is a cruel illness,” said Zwier. “A person often does not recognize or accept that they are ill and may be very distrustful of treatment.” One of the key issues Zwier pointed out at the forum was the gap between the onset of the symptoms and treatment. In cases of schizophrenia, that delay is 8.5 years on the average.
Schizophrenia is not caused by “bad parenting,” said Zwier. Guilt and shame should not be the immediate reaction of the parent or partner of a person with psychosis. While no direct cause is known, Zwier said there is a genetic component to schizophrenia. “There is a predisposition that then may be kindled by environmental or non-genetic factors, including even possibly in vitro viruses.”
The prevailing question at the forum was how do you know when someone needs help. Zwier ran through the symptoms of schizophrenia: hallucinations, delusions, a loss of touch with reality, emotional flatness, lack of pleasure, the inability to start or finish anything and an impairment in the ability to prioritize and organize thoughts as well as memory issues. “A lot of mental illness or other disorders can have two or three of these symptoms,” admitted Zwier.
The early signs are even more confusing when applied to young people becoming independent or just trying to find their place in the world: the person stops doing what they once enjoyed, stops engaging, has no goals and is unmotivated, isolated and hostile.
“You have to trust your gut,” said Zwier. She elaborated at the school safety meeting, “In our community we know our kids. It’s important to identify kids in trouble, to manage the problem in time with early intervention. We have to make sure there is no kid without a significant adult in their lives, one who really knows them.” Zwier also encouraged parents to talk to teachers, to find out if they’ve seen the change in behavior, or for concerned non-parents to talk to the family or the person in question directly.
The next obvious question is where do you go for help. The County’s Behavioral Health Services, at 162 Grove St., in Bishop, has therapists and case managers on staff and access to psychiatric services and can point residents in the right direction. “We’re the safety net for persons who are indigent or without means and have a mental illness that impacts their lives,” said Zwier. “We also provide crisis mental health services.”
“Access to long-term care in a secure facility is difficult,” said Zwier. “Community mental health funding is incredibly complex and like many services, the need far outweighs the funding.”
According to Zwier, passage of the Mental Health Services Act, Prop. 63 in 2004, made it possible for counties to customize services to meet the mental health needs of local communities.
The department runs two wellness centers for the homeless community and adults, some of whom have mental issues but may not recognize them. The center reaches out to this community, offering a warm cup of coffee and referrals, a safe place to come. The Bishop Wellness Center is currently at 130 Short St. in Bishop and at 126 Washington St. in Lone Pine.
The county’s residential facility, Progress House, is accessed through Behavioral Health and is designed for adults, 18-59, for longer-term care or respite in crisis situations. For juveniles, Zwier said the best situation is to treat them within the family and community if at all possible. Services may be intensive and include a wraparound approach for the family.
The focus of the Behavioral Services forum was to simply begin the dialogue that mental illness is just that, an illness that deserves the community’s compassion and care. Early intervention and treatment may help reduce the number of mass shootings, but just as important and more relevant, it can give members of our community their lives back.