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Newtown is a failure of nation's mental-health system

PRESIDENT Obama yesterday finally said aloud two words that he hasn't often uttered, as he appointed Vice President Joe Biden to lead an effort to suggest concrete proposals for stemming gun violence.

Those words were "mental health."

The president said, "We're going to need to work on making access to mental-health care at least as easy as access to a gun." That's a conversation that is as long overdue as the gun conversation that was prompted anew by the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., and probably far more complicated.

Few who have tried to get treatment for mental illness, serious or otherwise, for themselves or a loved one have an easy time of it; access to the mental-health system can be difficult, and getting consistent and quality care can be nightmarish.

The long-term erosion of funding is part of the problem, and that trend continues. In the most recent state budget, for example, Gov. Corbett proposed $110 million in cuts from county mental-health services, and big cuts to behavioral-health services. Ultimately, the budget was passed with some of those cuts restored, but most intact.

Pennsylvania is not alone; many states have slashed state mental-health agency budgets in the past few years - by one estimate, $3.4 billion in mental-health funding has been cut by states since 2009.

Like many remedies discussed in the aftermath of last week's tragedy, more focus on mental health is no guarantee that similar tragedies would be avoided. Predicting who will become an assassin is next to impossible, experts agree. And all we know about Adam Lanza is that he was said to be odd, a social misfit. His mother was said to be worried about him. So why did she have guns in the house? Didn't she know he might use them? The answer is: No.

While the vast majority of people with mental illness never become violent, it's true that certain pre-conditions can be predictive of violence. If someone is young, male, addicted, mentally ill and has already committed an act of violence, he's likely to commit another. Lanza didn't fit that profile, nor did Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris of Columbine, or other notorious mass murderers.

But we need is to recognize mental health as a priority. That means money for school psychologists to monitor students and offer early treatment years before the emotional internal storm can culminate in a volley of bullets. Schools that actually still have psychologists use them primarily to test special-education students.

We need money so that psychologists don't continue abandoning their practices because cuts in government and insurance reimbursements have made it impossible for them to practice. We need money so they can continue providing therapy as an alternative to the dispensing of pills, which constitutes most intervention these days.

We need money so that cities like Philadelphia can operate effectively, with programs such as the innovative one established by the city's Office of Behavioral Health that teaches mental-health first aid: how to recognize when someone needs help and what to do about it. (888-545-2600 is available 24 hours a day.)

As encouraged as we are that the president is taking steps on the gun issue, we're even more optimistic that he's also acknowledging this far more complex problem that we have ignored for far too long.