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Hartford current: Notes from the Mental Health Task Force

State Rep. Terrie Wood

Democracy works, and our mission is clear.

On Dec. 14 our world was changed when we heard the breaking news of the school massacre in Newtown. I knew we had reached the tipping point of gun violence in our country. This would be the point that we, as a state and country, would address the mass shootings in schools and other public places. I also sensed that it was a tragic situation involving the mental health of the shooter as well the accessibility of weapons by the wrong person.

In January, Hartford legislative leaders appointed a Bipartisan Gun Violence Prevention and School Safety Task Force, comprised of three working groups: Gun Prevention, School Security and Mental Health Services. Each group will report their recommendations back to the leadership by Feb 15. Leadership will work through the recommendations and deliver it to the Senate and the House at the end of February as an Emergency Certified bill (E-cert) to be effective immediately.

I was appointed co-chairman of the Mental Health working group along with Senator Toni Harp, a Democrat from New Haven. The co-chairmen and Task Force are split evenly between Republican and Democratic legislators. This is a unique situation where both parties come together to work for a solution and not push party politics. Governor Malloy formed a separate Task Force with 16 people who will present their findings in the middle of March.

Typically, legislative work spans three to five months, starting with committee meetings and public hearings, followed by moving bills to the floor of both legislative chambers. By design, a deliberate process. To bring legislation forward in six weeks is a break-neck pace, but is the right thing to do in this situation. We must be careful to do thorough due diligence to avoid unintended consequences.

One challenge (and frustration) we have is that the police report on the alleged shooter, results of autopsy, and psychiatric history and treatment have been sealed as the investigation is ongoing. It would be tremendously helpful, essential really, to know the details of how this person eluded the laws and safetys net that are in place. We need to know what went wrong to effectively address it with legislation.

All three working groups have had their public hearings. Gun Safety had over 1,300 people sign up to testify, starting at 10 a.m. and ending at 3:30 a.m. We heard over 120 people from the public testify for the Mental Health Services over 12 hours. The public was welcome to testify with a three-minute limit. Those wishing to submit testimony may still do so at asaferconnecticut@cga.ct.gov. The information on the task force and all submitted testimony is available on the website, cga.ct.gov, you will see the link on the upper right hand corner.

The Mental Health Working Group commenced with an Informational Panel of the public and private delivery systems and the court system. Testimony from the public immediately followed.

Informational panels included the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, Department of Children and Families, Office of the Healthcare Advocate, several psychiatrists, National Association of Mental Illness, the Court System was represented by the Probate Court System, and CT Legal Rights and Victims Advocacy Center.

Themes were consistent and several areas stood out. First and foremost, the stigma that still exists around mental health. Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia., bi-polar and other mood disorders are not understood by the general public. With little understanding comes little tolerance for some of the issues of the mental and developmentally disabled. Mental illness, unlike a broken bone, cancer or the flu, is much harder to measure and quantify. Many speakers stressed the importance of early identification and early intervention for those with mental and emotional challenges. There is no question that we need to do a better job of diagnosing and treating it in our communities.

Among other mental health needs identified were lack of practicing psychiatrists in the state, and not enough social workers and psychologists in schools. Fragmentation of services for those ages 18-25, transitioning out of the DCF system into Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services was often mentioned. Lastly, the importance of aligning the probate court system with mental health delivery was heavily stressed.

Now that we have heard both expert and public testimony, it is time to create meaningful and effective legislation.

Next column, I will update what our committee is likely to recommend and also some details on what the School Security and Gun Prevention Work Groups are looking at for recommendations.

Terrie Wood, a Republican, represents the 141st District, which includes Darien and Royalton, in the State House. She can be reached at terrie.wood@housegop.ct.gov or 800-842-1423. She can be followed on Twitter @terriewood.

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