HARTFORD, Conn. — Anguished mothers with mentally ill children have sought out Liza Long for help ever since she wrote an essay, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” comparing experiences with her son to the emotionally troubled 20-year-old who carried out the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
The massacre sounded alarms nationally about gaps in mental health care and led to calls for better screening and services, especially for young people showing a propensity for violence, but some key reforms enacted in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting depend on funding that has yet to be delivered by Congress. And Long still hears almost daily from families overwhelmed by their children’s behaviors and struggling to get treatment.
“We’re still not seeing the health access, the access to mental health care,” said Long, an Idaho mother of four and community college instructor who credited her essay with attracting the attention of a physician who correctly diagnosed and treated her then-13-year-old son for bipolar disorder.
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Like other mass shootings before and since, the tragedy prompted calls for tighter controls on guns and improved mental health treatment. Five years later, mental health care providers are waiting for promised boosts in funding, and many families are still battling insurance companies to cover their children’s services.
While advocates say the quality of mental health care varies widely by state, they also see reason for optimism in a push for more early intervention programs and changing public attitudes about mental illness.
“There’s a lot of reason to feel optimistic,” said Ron Honberg, senior policy adviser at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “But there are a lot of challenges too, particularly around financing these services.”
The 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law by then-President Barack Obama in December 2016, was inspired in part by the tragedy and included what proponents touted as the first major mental health reform package in nearly a decade. The measures that were included in the law but still await funding include grants for intensive early intervention for infants and young children showing signs of mental illness.
“There were a lot of things people took credit for passing,” said U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat whose district includes Newtown. “If they’re not funded, it’s a nice piece of paper and something hanging on somebody’s wall, but it’s not going to help save lives.”