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Op-Ed: We Can’t Look Away Anymore

Image: Flowers are seen at a memorial outside of the offices for WDBJ7 where killed journalists Alison Parker and Adam Warm worked in Roanoke

Flowers are seen at a memorial outside of the offices for WDBJ7 where killed journalists Alison Parker and Adam Warm worked in Roanoke, Virginia August 27, 2015. CHRIS KEANE / Reuters

Young reporters all over this country hope for their big break—a local story that gets picked up by the national news. Yesterday two journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward were gunned down while on the air, by former co-worker Vester Lee Flanagan. Today all three are the national news. There is no confirmation yet that Flanagan has ever been diagnosed with mental illness, but there is no question that this was the act of someone in his right mind. This story of mentally ill people with guns is way too common.

There will always be guns in this country. There will always be people living with mental illness, who are often undiagnosed, or who have no resources for ongoing treatment. It is a public health issue of the highest order and a deadly combination for all of us. This incident, like all the others will prompt heated arguments about gun control. We will ponder the status of our mentally ill. Yet the real question is what does it take for this country to get serious about the consequences of these conversations without action?

Yesterday’s incident shows that we cannot afford to look, then look away anymore.

Maybe it has to start with us. In the black community we must get serious in our push for both public policy, and community action around mental health. It is not okay that blacks in this country are significantly less likely to receive diagnosis and treatment for mental illness than their white counterparts. There are fewer resources available to adequately fund services.

It is not okay for us in the black community to shun and stigmatize those living with mental illness. Then act surprised when something unspeakable happens. We must rewrite the script from stigma and shame of mental illness to one of fighting for mental health. We simply are not prepared for the fight. Ask friends and families about how difficult it is to get help and support. So many families of mentally ill individuals live on the edge, waiting for what they see as THE call. Because their own hands are tied, many hope that the person gets arrested and goes to jail before they do something violent and tragic to themselves or others. The problem is that incarceration is a flimsy bandage for the mentally ill. There is little help inside, and people often come out in worse shape than they went in. And as we have seen in recent cases, many mentally ill inmates actually die in incarceration.

Image: WDBJ-TV7 anchor Chris Hurst, right, hugs meteorologist Leo Hirsbrunner
WDBJ-TV7 anchor Chris Hurst, right, hugs meteorologist Leo Hirsbrunner during the early morning newscast at WDBJ-TV7, in Roanoke, Va., Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015. Hurst was the fiance of Alison Parker, who was killed during a live broadcast Wednesday, in Moneta. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) Steve Helber / AP

The truth is nobody knows what to do for the mentally ill. But we better figure it out fast. The one thing we do know is that guns and mental illness are a bad combination. There are no signs or warnings until the unthinkable happens—in a church, in a school, on a college campus, or two reporters just doing their jobs.

Yesterday’s incident shows that we cannot afford to look, then look away anymore. If our communities don’t push for mental health resources a priority, we are all at risk.

Trust and believe that there will be lots of Monday morning quarterbacking going on in human resources offices, departments of public health and in barbershops and beauty salons. Politicians will make this story a part of their stump speeches for a while. Soon the story will become less raw, and the memory will fade, until the next incident. Until we confront mental illness and seek to create mental health, there will always be a next incident.

  • African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having severe psychological distress than their white counterparts but less likely to seek treatment. (U.S. Office of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health)
  • Cultural competence in mental health is a challenge. Only two percent of psychiatrists, two percent of psychologists and four percent of social workers in the U.S. are African American. (US Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health)
  • Exposure to violence puts individuals at higher risk for mental illness. Over 25 percent of black youth exposed to have a high risk for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). (U.S. Office of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health)
  • African Americans are nearly twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. (NAMI National Association for the Mentally Ill)
  • Across the nation, individuals with severe mental illness are three times more likely to be in a jail or prison than in a mental health facility. (American Psychological Association)