Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Republicans Like Children (just keep them off our lawns)

We need to move from a general policy of incarcerating and detaining people with difficulties adjusting to society to one of providing assistance to people with problems. This should not be that difficult, for it was not so long ago that this was our overall philosophy.  It was former Pennsylvania Governor George Leader who made me aware of this when he cited that, when he was Governor, over 90% of people in a state institution when he was Governor were then in mental health facilities and less then 10% were incarcerated. Today, over 90% of people in state institutions are in prison or jail and less than 10% are in mental health treatment. This does not mean mental health institutionalization is the best option. Indeed, many used to be poorly run.  Progress has provided us with a range of counseling and  mental health services. Sadly, though, these services have been cut while incarceration has risen sharply.

These numbers take on greater significance when realizing that a larger proportion of the population today is in some form of state institution. This shift has happened in a matter of a few decades. This is turning out to be a mistake both in term of lives ruined and in taxpayer costs. The lessening of counseling, mental health services, and drug and alcohol dependency services means that people with difficulties adjusting in society are more prone to enter government services in the most costly of services as that as an inmate.

It is far better to identify people with mental health difficulties, drug and alcohol dependencies, and intellectual difficulties earlier in their lives and to provide them treatment, counseling, or the appropriate programs to enable them to overcome their problems and improve their lives. This will help them and help the lives of people they affect, from their families to strangers who may otherwise be victimized by their untreated behavioral problems.

Our failing to provide this assistance costs us financially. One of the largest increases in state government spending has been on corrections and juvenile detention. These incarcerations cost many more times than the costs of treatment programs and counseling. Unfortunately, government budgeting personnel think in terms of annual budgets and not in reducing long term costs. The trend has been to reduce spending on treatment and counseling programs to help balance annual budgets. Yet we now see these savings are creating far more costs now than what they saved in the past. This trend must be reversed before these costs spiral out of control.

I recall speaking with an official at Columbine High School years ago following shootings where several died. He spoke at a conference where it appeared nearly all attending agreed that more early intervention school counseling that could prevent further similar tragedies. Most teachers, school nurses, and school psychologists can identify around fifth grade which students are having problems adjusting. This does not mean each such student will become a murderer. Yet by providing appropriate counseling and treatment these troubled students can learn to adjust, improve their grades, and have better futures. This will include those who in the future may otherwise act out aggressively.

With each successive tragedy, I see scholars, academicians, and others getting together and each time they arrive at similar conclusions. We need to get more children into counseling and treatment programs earlier in life, Yet, nothing is done in achieving what needs to be done. It is time we finally stop talking about obvious solutions and create these solutions.

We have seen cutbacks in school psychologists, school nurses, and treatment programs for at risk children. School budget officials often find it hard to even consider funding such operations when they are having difficulties funding basic school offerings. It is time, though, that we insist that these programs be restored and properly expanded. It will save lots more money in the long run. It will save a lot of children from future difficulties.

A few decades ago, I worked on legislation helping people with physical difficulties. Opponents incorrectly warned that passing laws making places more accessible would bankrupt us all. A large number of advocates joined in successfully fighting to see these proposals passed. The fears of bankruptcies did not occur. Instead, we now live in a nation where people have greater access to places to enjoy life and, which has made some prior cynics happy, spend more money. The lives of millions of people with physical disabilities have been improved.

Unfortunately, there is no mass movement of people with mental difficulties and dependencies organizing to obtain support of programs supporting them. We need to advocate for those who can not help themselves or do not yet know they will need these services. We need to speak for those who can not speak for themselves. We do not need more tragedies where we agree something needs to be done and then forget about it until there are more tragedies yet to only repeat this fruitless cycle. We need to act in the interests of people in current and future need as well as in our own interests as long term taxpayers and potential people in harm for people with difficulties. We must act, and we must act now. When people realize they will improve so many lives, and save themselves money, there hopefully will be an outpouring of support.


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