Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Prevention is the only true cure

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In the wake of the mass killing at a school in Connecticut, gun enthusiasts jumped to complain that those who favour gun control would use the children's bodies to push a political agenda. So, too, did the pro-gun lobby: Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert on Sunday told Fox News that had the principal at Sandy Hook grade school carried a military assault rifle, she could have taken out shooter Adam Lanza before he killed 20 children, five school staff and principal Dawn Hochsprung.

The formidable National Rifle Association and pro-gun lobbyists argue that liberal laws prevent a higher death rate because a gun in every house is a check on the otherwise free reign of the bad guys.

That position is betrayed by statistics.

Friday's tragedy -- magnified by its numbers of dead and by the ages and utter defencelessness of the victims -- shook the dust off the discussion about America's need for stricter laws on guns. And that is a good thing, because the more guns, the more gun-related deaths. The United States has about 30,000 gun-related deaths annually, 12,000 of which are homicides. Gun-related deaths in the United States outstrip those in other countries that make guns available to citizens, but have more restrictive ownership laws. And within the U.S., the states with more restrictive gun laws have fewer deaths. (There were an estimated 294 million non-military guns in the U.S. in 2007 -- almost matching the population, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service.)

It is a sad commentary that after repeat mass murders, it is the death of so many innocents that brings the U.S. back to a gun-control debate. But alongside the debate about gun control should be a discussion on mental illness and the availability of mental health care.

Mother Jones, a left-wing American magazine, has looked in some depth into the country's 61 mass killings in the last 30 years, 24 of which occurred in the last seven years. In 38 of the 61, the magazine found, the killers exhibited mental-health symptoms prior to the events that made them front-page news.

This is also relevant to Canada, where past mass shootings and murderous rampages -- Marc Lepine at École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989; more recently in 2006, Kimveer Gill, at Dawson College -- have highlighted the mental health of the killers.

In time, Adam Lanza's mental state may be better understood. But no stable, well-adjusted individual walks into a primary school and murders six- and seven-year-olds before killing himself.

In the U.S., as in Canada, access to mental-health services is a challenge. In the U.S., it is largely about health insurance; in Canada, it is about long waiting lists and a lack of publicly funded coverage under medicare -- costs for psychiatrists are covered, but there are few of them, a fact that is truer still for pediatrics. So for many children, early symptoms of mental illness are not diagnosed, let alone treated.

Canadians have restricted access to community psychotherapy counselling and service. Canada's mental health commission, in a report released this year, has highlighted the lack of available, affordable community psychotherapy and co-ordinated mental health services, such that crisis management, at hospitals, is often the main portal for the ill.

Addressing the need for good mental health services that prevent the spiral to crisis would not only prevent some of the murders, but also serve the many thousands of children and adults suffering with debilitating illnesses.

The appropriate immediate response in the U.S. to the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., is to pass restrictive gun laws.

But there, as in Canada, governments also should be thinking about preventing such catastrophic events. Bigger locks and tighter security procedures cannot address the problem. Better mental health services, however, can get to the root of pain and misery that too often ends in carnage.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 18, 2012 A10

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