Newtown demands a response

The immense tragedy that struck Newtown is unthinkable. On a normal school morning, in the midst of the holiday season, a place where children should be safe to learn and grow suddenly became a site of senseless violence. Within minutes, the incomprehensible actions of a young man had devastated a small-town community and murdered in cold blood six adults and 20 innocent children, all of them between 6 and 7 years old.

As the president said at the vigil, caring for our children must be our first task as representatives of the American people. We can no longer tolerate these tragedies and we must — working with law enforcement, mental health professionals, parents and educators — take steps toward change.

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In the face of this horrific act — and similar acts in Aurora and Portland, in Oakland and Tucson, in Blacksburg and Littleton — members of Congress have a moral obligation to take common-sense and constructive steps that could help prevent similar future tragedies.

To ensure the safety of our families and communities, we must seek reasonable legislation that controls the availability of firearms and establishes a stronger, more comprehensive system for background checks. We should also reinstitute the ban on assault weapons that was in place until 2004, and devise a ban on high-capacity magazine clips. A ban on military-style weapons might well have forbidden one of the weapons used in this deadly attack on Sandy Hook Elementary.

Yet, if we are to do better for our children, we must also realize that mental illness is an unaddressed public health emergency in our society, and something that we must deal with. As the lead Democrat on the subcommittee that funds many federal health initiatives, as well as a representative of a community with great resources for mental healthcare, such as the Yale Child Study Center, it is an issue I have looked to address throughout my career.

Over the last few decades, the prejudices and misconceptions that have so long accompanied mental health have at last begun to change. Sadly, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States. We also must address the fact that more than a quarter of youths experience some kind of serious traumatic event before their 16th birthday, with many suffering multiple and repeated traumas throughout their childhoods.

This is a massive loss of human potential and a fertile breeding ground for the type of evil we saw unleashed in Newtown. But it can be mitigated. Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have fought hard to improve access to mental health services and reduce the stigma around mental health treatment. This includes strengthening funding for mental health programs like those supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the research supported by the National Institute of Mental Health. I am also proud that the Affordable Care Act builds on the 2008 Wellstone and Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, working to make our healthcare system more inclusive of mental health services.

This is a good start, but much more needs to be done to ensure our communities have the mental health resources they need. More than 40 percent of Americans who do not receive mental healthcare list cost as a barrier. Since 2009, state mental health budgets have been cut by nearly $5 billion, forcing more and more communities to rely on inadequate federal funding.

In the House majority’s fiscal 2013 appropriations bill, SAMHSA funding is slashed by 12 percent, and Community Mental Health Services Block Grants, which help provide services for people with serious mental illness, are cut by nearly 10 percent. Now is not the time to cut this program or others that support mental health services, including Medicaid, which is the single largest payer of such care.

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, as the president said, we can do better than this. Supporting increased access to mental health services and working to protect families from guns in the hands of violent criminals are two common-sense reforms we can take right now to prevent future tragedies. Moreover, we should work to ensure there are mental health professionals in every school to treat our children with needs.

Just as exposure to smoking might lead to cancer, childhood exposure to violence and trauma — like the violence we just saw in Newtown — may lead to psychiatric illness. As we have risen to the occasion for other public health challenges, we must similarly act now and turn our deliberations into action. We owe it to those heroes and innocents who perished at Sandy Hook, and their families, to make it happen.

DeLauro is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. First-grade teacher Vicki Soto, who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, was one of DeLauro’s constituents.