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Nixon says more mental health services prevents crime better than guns in classrooms

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 6, 2013 - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is touting his $10 million proposal to expand the state’s mental-health services as a key component of any effort to prevent a school-shooting tragedy like the December mass shooting at a grade school in Connecticut.

“Clearly we’re trying to get in a prevention mode here,” Nixon told reporters after hosting a roundtable event Wednesday afternoon in Arnold that featured educators, police and health-care professionals.

Mental illness is involved in "so many acts of violence, especially among young folks,” the governor said. “I clearly believe that prevention, when it comes to mental health, is very, very important.”

When asked, Nixon acknowledged that he believed that expanding mental-health treatment services was a better focus for the General Assembly than  legislative proposals calling for more guns in schools.

“Putting guns in classrooms is not going to solve this problem,” he said. “Obviously, you have to have school resource officers (armed police officers) and you have to make sure that schools are hardened and protected.

“But as far as in the classroom itself, the most important thing you can have going on there is a safe learning environment, where, if there are mental-health challenges, you have a fully trained staff that can pick those out and get those young folks the treatment they need to prevent the acts of violence that otherwise would occur.”

Nixon and other officials previously have noted that many recent mass-shooting suspects, including the assailant in Connecticut, suffered from mental illness. The governor chose his home turf in Jefferson County to discuss the issue on Wednesday, where he was joined by some officials who have worked with the governor since he was a young local lawyer 30 years ago.

Dr. Stephen Huss, president and chief executive of COMTREA – a county community health center – said that in 2012 the facility turned away 2,000 people in need of mental-health services because it lacked the capacity.

Dianne Critchlow, superintendent of the Fox C-6 school district, said the district attracted “the largest crowd we’ve ever had” at a meeting to discuss school safety in the wake of the Connecticut tragedy.

Parents were most interested in having the district post armed school resource officers at every school and in efforts to identify those with mental illness and treat them, she said.

Critchlow said later that the district has the equivalent of 2 and 1/2 armed officers to serve 19 school buildings. Two are assigned to the district’s high schools.

The governor’s budget proposal calls for an additional $10 million in mental-health spending, divided among three programs.

A significant chunk of the money would be used to set up seven facilities across the state, including one in the St. Louis area, to house “mobile crisis teams,” said Dr. Keith Schafer, director of Missouri’s Department of Mental Health.

The teams’ tasks would include coordinating services when a person deemed to be mentally ill shows up at a hospital for treatment and needs to be turned over to another facility for continued treatment.

Now, many such people are simply released from the hospital without supervision, Jefferson County authorities said, even in cases when violent incidents had landed them in the hospital.

About $3.6 million would be used to place mental health liaisons at each of the 29 certified community mental health centers across the state. “These mental health professionals will work with courts, law enforcement, and families to help individuals with mental illness receive proper treatment,” the governor’s staff said in a statement.

About $450,000 would be earmarked “to help educate and train more teachers, law enforcement, clergy, employers and families on how to recognize, respond to and care for those with mental illness through crisis intervention and mental health first-aid training,” Nixon’s office said.

Schafer said he has been pleased by the positive reception the $10 million proposal has received from many legislators who are on opposite sides in any debate about guns. “We’ve seen phenomenal support on both sides of the aisle,” Schafer said. “This is not a partisan issue.”

Huss, who runs the COMTREA health center, acknowledged that the money the governor is allocating is not enough to handle the treatment for all mentally ill people – especially those without money, insurance or resources. “But it’s going to help,” the physician added.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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